Although largely laughed at by the mainstream as nothing more than a soap opera watched by men, professional wrestling has played a big part in our national consciousness for most of the twentieth and the beginning of this century. Although, as a sport, wrestling can trace it’s roots to the ancient Greeks, it wasn’t until the latter nineteenth century that it began to grow in popularity. At that time, wrestlers traveled with carnivals for their bouts. By the beginning of the twentieth century, promoters, business men who had stables of wrestlers working for them in specific locations, came together and created the first national organization of their promotions. The National Wrestling Association was formed in 1904, crowning the first recognized world heavy weight champion, George Hackenschmidt. The road would get bumpy, though, as egos and money caused the promoters to clash. The original NWA began to fray by the mid 1940’s.
In 1948, a new group of promoters pulled together and from the ashes of the National Wrestling Association they formed a new organization. The National Wrestling Alliance was born. For twelve years, they were the only wrestling available, but stars were born. Names like Lou Thesz, Verne Gagne, Nature Boy Buddy Rogers and most notably Gorgeous George became weekly companions to television viewers in this new medium. RCA once released a statement that the afore mentioned Gorgeous George sold more televisions for them than any advertising, due to his antics in the ring. Things were about to drastically change with one name very familiar to people, today, being a catalyst for it.
Minnesota native, Verne Gagne had become a real superstar. He was one of the first professional wrestlers to get endorsement deals on television. He began to appear on everything from cereal commercials to fitness magazines. It was decided that he would defeat wrestling’s other huge draw, Lou Thesz. Thesz had a lot of pull though and disliked losing the prestigious NWA title. He felt it was unbecoming for him to lose to such a young man and the plan was nixed. Gagne, displeased, decided to start his own rival promotion, the American Wrestling Association. He immediately had a tournament, where he crowned himself the first AWA world heavyweight champion. The AWA would eventually cooperate with the NWA, but there were always tensions that caused there never to be a unified champion between the two.
In the early 1960’s, Jesse McMahon handed his New England based promotion to his son, Vince McMahon, Sr. McMahon Sr. had two of the hottest NWA stars in his territory, Nature Boy Buddy Rogers and Bruno Sammartino. Rogers, like Gagne was selected to defeat Thesz for the NWA title. Thesz initially agreed, feeling that the brash arrogant young heel (bad guy) would be a great champion. He later changed his opinion, on a carpooled ride with Rogers. Rogers wanted to cut out legend and mentor to Thesz, Ed “Strangler” Lewis, because he felt that he and Thesz could make off with a larger purse. Thesz then refused to be pinned by Rogers. The NWA was about to see it’s second split.
Although Rogers was finally awarded the NWA title in 1961, by defeating Pat O’Connor , he was defeated two years later, by Thesz. McMahon was infuriated that the NWA board refused to grant a rematch. Like Gagne, before him, McMahon left the NWA and started his own promotion, the WWWF and crowned Nature Boy Buddy Rogers it’s inaugural world heavyweight champion.
Tensions slacked and it was a regular thing to see stars and champions from these rival promotions working in each others shows. During this time, huge stars would be born. Names like Andre the Giant, Bruno Sammartino, Ric Flair,Dusty Rhodes and Randy Savage became the new norm. Two names in particular would radically change the landscape and lay the ground work for the way wrestling is handled, today. Those names are Vince McMahon, Jr. and Hulk Hogan.
All three major promotions were flourishing in the late seventies and early eighties. Feuds like Ric Flair and Harley Race in the NWA and Bob Backlund and Superstar Billy Graham in the WWWF were sell outs. Gagne’s AWA was on top of the wrestling world, scoring a highly desired cable deal, with ESPN. His biggest stars were embroiled in a feud that Gagne would inevitably flub and would be the beginning of the end for his company. That feud was AWA champion and an up and comer, Hulk Hogan.
Hogan had been released by the WWWF in the late seventies only to find Greg Gagne, Verne’s son offering him a job. Hogan accepted and took what he had seen done by Superstar Billy Graham and Ric Flair and formed a movement many people know…Hulkamania. Verne did not like the idea of a non “wrestler” winning the AWA title. After defeating Bockwinkel, Verne stripped Hogan of the title. Hogan was upset, not only for that, but Verne also wanted a cut of the merchandising that he was selling personally. By this time, Vince McMahon, Jr. had assumed the mantel of head of the renamed WWF. He saw Hogan as his ticket to the big time. He began talent raids on both the NWA and more notably the AWA. He also made his new acquisitions sign exclusive contracts, a first in wrestling history. The dawn of the age of Wrestlemania had arrived.
In the late 1980’s the NWA was once again flailing. It’s Memphis territory had aligned with the AWA. The Texas based WCCW had also split as a new independent promotions, with loose ties to the rapidly declining AWA. The WWF had taken most of the biggest names in wrestling into their fold and wouldn’t share. Powerhouse Midsouth also split from the NWA to form the UWF. The results were much like things were in the 1940’s and early 1960’s. To make matters worse for the NWA, it’s biggest promotion, Jim Crockett promotions sold out to billionaire mogul Ted Turner and was renamed WCW and it slit from the NWA. The 1990’s would look totally different than any previous era.
In 1989, WCCW merged with Memphis, for a brief run as the USWA, before closing it’s doors in the mid 1990’s. In 1991, with outrageous debt amassed, Gagne closed the doors on the AWA. McMahon had won, for a while. The NWA wasn’t finished, though. It’s territory in Pensilvania, Eastern Championship Wrestling was doing quite well, but as usual, for the NWA nothing was that easy. Promoter, Paul Heyman split from them and renamed his promotion Extreme Championship Wrestling. Ted Turner wanted his company to succeed and did to McMahon what he had done to Gagne. He started a massive recruitment drive, under the direction of Eric Bischoff. The result was the Monday Night Wars. Two wrestling shows simulcast on competing networks. These two shows had a massive impact not only on that sport, but even Monday Night Football. The NFL had never received rating so low in it’s history. It prompted ABC to move MNF to ESPN. Again things were about to settle, though. The year 2001 would be a year only one promotion would completely dominate.
By the year 2001, Ted Turner no longer owned WCW and Time Warner no longer wanted wrestling. Heyman’s ECW had suffered greatly by the talent raids by both WWF and WCW and closed shop. Vince Jr. purchased both companies and in time once again renamed his company World Wrestling Entertainment. Although the NWA still exists and there are rival promotions, like TNA and ROH, the WWE is the king of the hill, so to speak. McMahon has purchased many of the libraries of the old territories and releases them on DVD and his network. In today’s day and age, there aren’t the options that there were for American wrestling fans. Love him or hate him though, Vince McMahon still provides that wacky fix for all fans of such a nonsensical sport that only people who can suspend their disbelief for three hours a week to enjoy.