It may come as no surprise to you that professional wrestling started off in fairground fighting contests alongside strongman competitions, and as its popularity grew with its dangers, fight fixing became more prevalent along with it – the matches had predetermined outcomes based on what would be most compelling for audiences to come back again the next time the “carnies” were back in town.
Throughout most of the 20th century in the United States, the National Wrestling Alliance oversaw this travelling roadshow through a regional network of local promoters who held events in specific territories, based on handshake agreements and semi-formal committees.
The NWA’s “world” champion, of course, went from territory to territory (sometimes even outside the United States), headlining each show by taking on the region’s top star, and this formula worked very well, especially when the villainous heel champion either used skulduggery to come out on top (and then get beat up after the bell to please the crowd), or lost by running away, or getting disqualified for cheating so that the crowd favourite won but still failed to take the title (belts couldn’t change hands via count-out or disqualification, since pins and submissions were considered more decisive victories).
Of course, sometimes the local hero won the belt, but the storylines often worked best when the heroes chased the villain, and crowds flocked to shows in the hopes he’d finally receive his comeuppance. But which hero was deemed worthy of taking the title was largely decided by the NWA’s committee, based on the territories, upcoming storylines, and the applicant’s attributes. Would crowds still come along in droves to see a hero who keeps winning? These were all important considerations for those booking the events.
The son of events promoter Roderick James “Jess” McMahon — Vince McMahon Sr — held his own territory, the WWWF, in the north-east, including New York City’s Madison Square Garden, which was key to him promoting legendary champion Buddy Rogers in New York, where they preferred a popular hero defending the title against various villains, a formula that worked well for them. When, in 1963, the NWA decided Lou Thesz would be the one to dethrone Rogers as NWA World Champion, McMahon Sr withdrew the WWWF’s membership of the NWA, feeling Thesz was unworthy and less of a draw for their following in New York. McMahon Sr declared Rogers the “WWWF World Champion,” and he was publicly presented the brand-new belt on the explanation that he won a tournament in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil (which of course was not true, but without the internet at this time, and everything taken at face value, who would know?)
Nonetheless, Vince McMahon Sr agreed to continue promoting the WWWF in the north-eastern territory only, so as not to step on the toes of other NWA-affiliated promoters, and that he did, throughout the 1970s. As the 1980s approached, he then handed over the WWWF to his son, Vince McMahon Jr, who oversaw the change in name to WWF and introduced an Intercontinental Championship, its first champion being Pat Patterson, who – you guessed it – became titleholder after apparently winning a tournament in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil!
Vince McMahon Jr maintained the relationship with Madison Square Garden for a third generation, promoting history-making shows there, with the WWF World Championship centre stage. However, he also reneged on his father’s promise, and aggressively encroached into NWA territories, using his winning formula and its resulting financial success, alongside some risks and a whole lot of luck, to put NWA territories out of business. Vince McMahon Jr hated the NWA, seeing them as a cabal, and genuinely saw himself as the underdog in his fight for pro wrestling dominance (and ethics aside, he was).
After the success of WrestleMania at Madison Square Garden, and further follow-up money-making Pay-Per-View events, Vince enjoyed incredible success, the fan favourite formula still working well for him throughout the 1980s, with Hulk Hogan fighting villainous stereotypes like “evil” Japanese fiends, and, in slightly more up-to-date nationalism, Soviet henchmen, and Iranian sheiks. Hogan’s “Real American” song rang out through Madison Square Garden as he vanquished threat after threat in the Reagan era. Vince, meanwhile, made millions, as WrestleMania became a household name and annual tradition on Pay-Per-View television. In order to avoid sporting regulations, Vince broke “kayfabe” (the pro wrestling equivalent of the Magic Circle) by giving away business secrets in court and happily explaining the planned, predetermined nature of pro wrestling to convince authorities that the WWF should not be subjected to the same scrutiny as other legitimate sporting events.
One NWA promoter who was still enjoyed great success was Jim Crockett, who presented a more traditional “kayfabe” product and promoted stars popular in the south – such as Dusty Rhodes and Ric Flair – and was considered the primary showcase for fans of the NWA. After the huge success of his televised Starrcade events, Crockett decided it was time to offer Pay-Per-View shows as well, and he booked a slot for Thanksgiving in 1987. Vince, meanwhile, told the cable companies that he was going to hold a second annual Pay-Per-View event too, on that very night, called the Survivor Series. The PPV companies accepted the proposal, since pro wrestling fans could enjoy two offerings on the same evening. However, for Vince that wasn’t good enough, and the cable companies had clearly missed his original point: citing the huge success of WrestleMania, Vince made it clear that if they aired Crockett’s Starrcade, they could never have WrestleMania ever again. Almost all PPV networks caved in and refused to offer Starrcade on their broadcast schedule, and this resulted in financial disaster for Crockett.
Nonetheless, Crockett went back to the cable companies and reasoned with them to have another opportunity – one without Vince’s sabotage. They arranged an exclusive slot for Crockett to present Bunkhouse Stampede on PPV, and all seemed well. However, Vince then decided he was creating a third major annual show that would take place on that very same night: the Royal Rumble. Being unable to air it on PPV was fine by him, because he simply showed it on regular television, essentially free of charge. Unsurprisingly, most pro wrestling fans chose to watch the free show rather than the PPV, and Crockett was financially ruined.
While up for sale, Jim Crockett Promotions did enjoy one last bit of revenge against Vince: By the time WrestleMania rolled around again in the spring of 1988, airing as usual on PPV, they offered a special Clash of the Champions event for free on television, taking a chunk out of WrestleMania’s PPV buys and bloodying Vince’s nose.
Billionaire Ted Turner then bought Jim Crockett Promotions later that year, renaming it World Championship Wrestling, or WCW – designed to be a direct competitor to Vince’s WWF. Pro wrestling fans debated on who was the true champion: WCW’s NWA World Champion (more often than not Ric Flair), or Vince’s WWF World Champion (usually Hulk Hogan).
The 1990s saw this war rage throughout the entire decade.
In a coup, Ric Flair showed up on WWF television with the NWA World Championship belt after contract negotiations with Turner’s people broke down and Flair walked out without dropping the title to anyone (almost unheard of at the time). Yet Vince never promoted a Flair-Hogan high profile match, believing nobody in the northeast hotbed or even on PPV wanted to see it.
Turner’s response to Flair leaving and taking the NWA belt with him was to create the WCW World Championship, with its own brand-new belt, and put in charge of WCW one media man named Eric Bischoff, who was able to lure Hulk Hogan away from the WWF to WCW, with help from Turner’s millions. By this time, the NWA was an afterthought: it was all about the WWF and WCW, each with their own exclusive champions, neither affiliated with the NWA.
Vince came up with the weekly show, Monday Night Raw (“uncut, uncensored, and uncooked”) on the USA Network. Bischoff audaciously responded by creating Monday Nitro on TNT network, going head-to-head with Vince’s show. Incredibly, WCW started beating the WWF in the ratings war.
Vince’s response at this time was to claim Ted Turner had a vendetta against him because Vince had refused to sell the WWF to him years before, and claimed Turner was unfair and unethical, and wanted to put the WWF out of business, “a monopolist’s dream,” claimed Vince. He even created a character on his show called “Billionaire Ted” to parody Turner.
And yet this kind of tit-for-tat business competition and aggressive expansion from WCW seemed to reflect Vince’s own efforts against the NWA when he first got into the pro wrestling business. Vince’s trailer park roots and carny promoter heritage are rarely mentioned, as he’s presented himself as a Greenwich businessman who promotes “sports entertainment,” rather than “wrasslin’” (he even asked his TV show commentators to refrain from using the terms “wrestling,” “wrestler,” or even “belt”). He was enamoured by showbusiness, loved nothing more than getting Hollywood celebrities on his shows, and made numerous attempts to succeed in business ventures outside of pro wrestling, almost all of them failures. The more he attempted to run away from carny pro wrestling, the more he was trapped by it.
By now the NWA was solely made up of regional territories with little or nothing to do with the WWF or WCW. One of its promotions, Eastern Championship Wrestling (ECW), in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, gained a cult following by offering something completely different: Mexican and Japanese talent with extreme athleticism, alongside extreme violence, bloodshed, and racy storylines. This affiliate organisation, too, would break away from the NWA, presenting itself as a fresh, modern alternative to both WCW and the WWF, a departure from tradition (including the NWA) and, under brilliant manager/promoter Paul Heyman, renaming itself Extreme Championship Wrestling. Impressively, ECW became the distant third.
Meanwhile, Lex Luger, initially pushed in the WWF as the next Hulk Hogan by Vince McMahon Jr, defected to WCW, appearing on Monday Nitro after deciding not to renegotiate his contract with Vince as had been expected. Alundra Blayze, the WWF’s Women’s Champion, also left in similar circumstances, taking her belt with her to Nitro and dumping it in a trashcan on live TV. WCW even enquired about finally holding a show at WWF’s old stomping ground, Madison Square Garden, who refused, due to their loyalty to Vince. Yes, WCW’s Eric Bischoff was as aggressive and merciless as Vince ever was, relentless in his attempts to sabotage the WWF and win the war between the two.
Using Turner’s millions, Bischoff next had his sights set on WWF star Bret “Hit Man” Hart, a legit-tough and cool, charismatic Canadian athlete who did most of his talking in the ring and who was able to fill the vacuum left by Hogan’s departure (and later Flair’s return to WCW). Bischoff offered ridiculous money to Bret, who instead decided to remain loyal to Vince, even for less money, since Vince was still offering him millions of dollars per year, and a 20 year contract: 3 as a performer, 17 as a backstage advisor. Bret seemed to care more about loyalty, values, and credibility than a few million more dollars in the bank.
WCW and especially the WWF began to emulate ECW’s extreme “crash” TV product, in a bid to outdo each other and win over audiences on Monday nights. Bret Hart’s antagonists, D-Generation X, led by Shawn Michaels, publicly urinated, played strip poker in the ring, and encouraged female fans to flash their breasts, while Texan loner “Stone Cold” Steve Austin came in from WCW via ECW and guzzled beer, used colourful language, and beat up corporate “suits,” initially as a villain but then becoming an antihero as working class fans related to him and lived vicariously through him literally giving his boss the finger and walking off drinking a Budweiser. With Austin’s popularity skyrocketing, Bret was instead juxtaposed as his foil. While Americans cheered on Austin, Canadians backed Bret. This stoked a tribal nationalistic feud that still allowed Bret to remain an upstanding role model in his native Canada, where he was nothing less than a national hero. Capturing the ECW vibe, Bret and Austin fought at WrestleMania in a fantastic encounter that saw Bret pummel a bloodied Austin after the bell before the American crowd, solidifying their opposite positions as hero and villain on different sides of the border.
But with the cult following of ECW and its incredible influence on pro wrestling, and the unexpected popularity of DX and Austin, Vince decided they were the future of the WWF, not Bret, and that Bret would not offer a return on the investment from his massive contract that gave him guaranteed downside pay and creative influence, even as a wrestler. Austin, after all, was a WCW reject, a young up-and-coming workhorse who had been hungry for opportunities in a WCW full of Hogan’s old friends way past their prime and getting by mostly on name value. Vince realised it was the younger stars like “Stone Cold” and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson that needed to be centre stage in the WWF, and multimillionaire McMahon informed Bret that, with funds allegedly so tight at such a crucial time in the ratings war with WCW, he was happy to release Bret from his contract so he could take Bischoff’s outstanding offer and join WCW.
Yet Bret, the WWF World Champion at the time, was still reluctant to leave, and only agreed while insisting to Vince that, in his showdown against Shawn Michaels at Survivor Series in Montreal, Canada, he be allowed to come out of the match victorious at the PPV, before dropping the belt on TV later on in the United States, then departing for WCW. Burnt by Lex Luger and especially Alundra Blayze, who infamously took her WWF belt with her and threw it in the garbage on Nitro, Vince was paranoid, unable – or unwilling – to trust Bret, demanding he lose to Shawn in Montreal before Hart’s own fans (when Shawn had defeated “British Bulldog” Davey Boy Smith in a title match in Birmingham, England, the fans almost rioted, threatening to attack DX and throwing trash and other objects at them). Bret utilised his creative control, and again insisted that he beat Shawn in Canada, then drop the title in the States before leaving. Vince reluctantly agreed.
In what became known as the infamous “Montreal Screwjob,” Vince marched to ringside during Bret’s title match with Shawn and – as Shawn held Bret in his very own Sharpshooter submission hold – demanded the referee call for the bell and declare Shawn the winner and new WWF World Champion. Shocked, Bret looked around and saw the faces of the conspirators who agreed to work together to dethrone Bret: Vince McMahon Jr, referee Earl Hebner, and Shawn Michaels, who alongside his DX ally Triple H, avoided a legitimate beating by swearing to Bret that they weren’t in on it, and the finish was as much as a surprise to them as it was to him (they later admitted they were lying, and were in on it all along). Vince wasn’t so lucky: Bret confronted him backstage and punched him in the face so hard it lifted Vince up in the air off his feet, leaving him lying in a heap. It was Bret, not Austin, who legitimately fulfilled the fantasy of the ordinary working stiff: he knocked out the boss.
The following day, Vince, complete with black eye, broke character and, appearing before cameras, famously said “Bret screwed Bret,” claiming he was left with no other option than to force a different match outcome to the one agreed because Bret was rejecting a “time-honoured tradition” of dropping a belt before leaving a promotion, even though Bret was outwardly willing to do so at a later date. This from a Vince McMahon who, years before, welcomed Ric Flair on to his own TV show carrying the NWA World Championship belt he had never dropped before arriving in the WWF.
Again, the rules are different for Vince. His WWF went on to destroy the overpaid, stale superstars of WCW anyway with a product heavily influenced by ECW, a libertarian politician by the name of Lowell P. Weicker Jr on his board of directors, as the ultra-conservative Parents Television Council targeted WWF advertisers in protest at the sex and violence, only fueling the WWF’s rebranded image as controversial, edgy, “must-see” TV – helped further by the rise of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and his inevitable storyline feud with boss Vince McMahon, who was now harnessing the hatred of the fans for the “Montreal Screwjob” by playing the evil boss with relish for the live cameras.
When what was left of WCW was sold off on the cheap to Vince McMahon himself, he gave a speech about mercilessly and ruthlessly choking out his competition, knocking Ted Turner, and conveniently forgetting his complaints about Turner’s “monopolist’s dream.” Classless as ever, Vince was a sore winner, and again the more he tried to avoid being perceived as a carny promoter, the more he fulfilled the persona of one. He hired Hollywood writers to create pro wrestling storylines when they knew little about pro wrestling. The product suffered as a result and has remained stagnant ever since.
By this time, Vince McMahon the Monopolist had put WWF Entertainment (or WWFE) on the stock exchange, and had his wife Linda court favour with politicians so as to avoid those pesky regulations again. Part of this plan to “go public” was to raise funds for the XFL, Vince’s latest non-wrestling venture that joined all of his others in complete failure. When challenged legally by the World Wildlife Fund for use of “WWF,” Vince spun his defeat in the courts as a cool campaign to “Get the ‘F’ Out,” renaming the WWFE simply “WWE.”
With Weicker off their board, and a rehabilitated PG product to appease their shareholders, the McMahons instead pumped money into the Donald Trump presidential campaign, betting on some healthy returns on the investment once he made it to the White House. He did, and promptly made Linda part of his administration, proving their investment paid off. The McMahons now had direct influence in the White House, a dream come true. Meanwhile, with Trump’s tirade against protesting players in the NFL, Vince re-launched the XFL as a strict, anti-protest American football league. Again, Vince really is a conservative carny redneck promoter just the same.
The WWE product, meanwhile, has remained corporate and stale with not a single rival in sight. While WWE business interests make more money than ever, its TV ratings are by no means awe-inspiring, and Vince’s formula has become outdated as he refuses to hand the reigns over to the next generation. “I’ll die in the chair,” the chairman claims. You’d better believe it.
But meanwhile, the nonsensical storylines, product placements, corporate WrestleManias high on style and low on substance, have all, perhaps inevitably, over time created an opening in the pro wrestling market.
Fans who wanted the actual athleticism to do the talking with such realism as to make suspension of disbelief almost effortless have sought solace in New Japan Pro Wrestling, which has been around since 1972 and is being expanded globally by its newest CEO, the worldly-wise Harold Meij. Those who wanted a Stateside alternative to WWE with a more sporting “code of honour” received refuge in Ring of Honor. Those who wanted comic book characters and storylines that were actually well-written and consistent enjoyed escape in episodes of Lucha Underground, featuring high-end Robert Rodriguez production and stars from Mexican lucha libre and beyond. Those who wanted talent that WWE rejected, missed out on, or have yet to discover, found comfort in Major League Wrestling. And those disappointed in the pro-Trump world of WWE who wanted more modern, progressive alternatives have run riot in the feminist punk product of Pro Wrestling: EVE, who threaten to “piledrive a fascist.” And of course there’s Impact Wrestling, which after years of mismanagement and misdirection attempting to copy WWE as “Total Nonstop Action”, have been revitalised under the guidance of brilliant minds like Don Callis, an intelligent, articulate former wrestler rather than some Hollywood writing reject.
All of these offer something for every fan, and all completely different to WWE, and remarkably refreshing. Essentially, this growing network of “independent” pro wrestling promotions has superseded the National Wrestling Alliance. Many still have agreements, and work with each other. You’ll see Matt Striker on MLW, as well as Lucha Underground. Lucha Underground’s Johnny Mundo is Johnny Impact on, yes, Impact. Impact’s Don Callis commentates for NJPW, as does Kevin Kelly, who worked for ROH as well.
But whatever happened to the NWA itself since the days of Dusty Rhodes and Ric Flair? Well, the NWA carried on as a smaller organisation since the WWF, WCW, and ECW all each abandoned it, and was recently bought by Smashing Pumpkins rock star and pro wrestling fan Billy Corgan. And it just hit the headlines yet again: Cody, son of Dusty Rhodes, captured the NWA World Championship at one of the most important pro wrestling shows in history.
Some of the highest-selling pro wrestling merchandise today is that of the Bullet Club that features Cody Rhodes, The Young Bucks, and Kenny Omega, all of whom many would argue are the biggest stars in the business (not a surprise, when you see the tacky, uncool t-shirt designs put out by WWE who must have the same designers as they had when they started). These stars have worked for many of the aforementioned promotions and just this past weekend made history, and not just with Cody’s title win.
Last year, someone on Twitter asked pro wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer if he thought a promotion like ROH could fill an arena with 10,000 fans, to which he replied “not any time soon.” Cody Rhodes replied: “I’ll take that bet, Dave.” Cody and the Young Bucks set about organising an independent pro wrestling show themselves, called “All In,” at the 10,000-seat Sears Center in Chicago, Illinois. Since it was designed to be a one-off show, it was open to almost every non-WWE pro wrestler on the planet whose current contracts and agreements allowed them to appear. Even former WWE star Chris Jericho – who has appeared at NJPW shows in Japan and had reportedly promised Vince he wouldn’t appear on any non-WWE event Stateside – showed up at All In. For the record, there were 10,411 fans in attendance, the show was a critical and commercial success, and there is already talk of a follow-up event. All In was the first non-WWE pro wrestling show to take place before a U.S. crowd of 10,000+ people for nearly twenty years.
Because of the success of All In, there is clear evidence of a strong appetite for an alternative to WWE. Even WWE knows this, as evidenced by their own recent actions. Rumour has it Vince will attempt to secure the services of several Bullet Club stars, which would not only capture some of that magic, but also stifle the competition. And it is competition. Everything starts small. There is a huge demand for these alternatives to a WWE product which is arguably worse than it’s ever been. For all their millions of dollars, their product remains style over substance, and people demand more. Yes, almost all of these fans will still watch some WWE and even attend WrestleMania (why do you think WrestleMania matches get booed?) But at the same time, more and more WWE fans are also headed in the opposite direction, seeking alternatives – and this flow means the tide is rising.
ROH and NJPW recently announced they were teaming up to host a “G1 Supercard” show at Madison Square Garden. Yes, the Madison Square Garden…during WrestleMania weekend, no less – that time when pro wrestling geeks from all over the world converge in one place with a passion for all things headlocks and histrionics.
While Vince has been busy re-branding his WWE – he demanded his people stop calling WrestleMania “the granddaddy of them all” because he felt it made it sound old, and almost entirely stopped promoting shows at good old Madison Square Garden, instead using the modern Barclays Center in Brooklyn – ROH and NJPW approached Madison Square Garden at an opportune time. With Vince clearly disinterested in the venue, the arena agreed to host G1 Supercard. This news was huge.
However – you guessed it – Vince seemingly got in touch with Madison Square Garden and reminded them that they had an agreement with the McMahons going back three generations, of course. For years, as with many other arenas, Madison Square Garden were held to an agreement by WWE that no other pro wrestling company could hold a show there within so many months of a WWE show (and sure enough, WWE kept repeatedly rolling through town frequently enough that literally no other promotion could have chance to use that arena). Of course, these days – and with seemingly no competition in sight seemingly capable of fully utilising the Madison Square Garden space – Vince had waning interest in the venue, and has barely held shows there compared to years past. But now, suddenly, with the G1 Supercard threatening to sell out the arena and really shake things up, Vince seemed to plead, “What about our agreement?” And yes, Madison Square Garden appeared to buckle under this bullying. The show was suddenly, it seemed, off.
But there’s another big business interest involved. Sinclair Broadcast Group, who now own ROH, also happen to run forty-three Fox affiliate TV stations that are airing WWE’s weekly SmackDown show. That’s a large chunk of the WWE viewing audience. With Sinclair Broadcast Group ready to take action, suddenly WWE issued a public statement: “Madison Square Garden are, of course, free to work with ROH however they want.” And the G1 Supercard was back on.
This is an exciting time in pop culture. For all the wonder and magic offered by the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s part of Disney, who also own the Star Wars franchise. In pro wrestling, WWE – despite Vince McMahon Jr’s “alternative facts” – have monopolised the business for almost twenty years, and it’s not even a good product. It’s not Rogue One. And Infinity War it sure ain’t. No, WWE is akin to a Battlefield Earth, shall we say.
It’s great to see so much more on offer – driven by intelligent, ambitious entrepreneurs, chief executives, and presidents with their fingers on the pulse – all offering something different, something better. If you’re even remotely interested in the stunt-work world of professional wrestling, check out some of them when you get chance…and be a part of the solution rather than the problem.
– Jay Baker 🤜