Selected Review of Literature: Professional Wrestling and the Roles of the Three Families that Keep it Going
The roots of professional wrestling can be traced back to before Roman times, and as Brett Ramsey points out in his essay "Pro Wrestling is Real: It's Life That's Fake - The Socio-Political Semiotics of Professional Wrestling," available on the Internet, many primitive tribes and cultures continue to utilize wrestling as an important part of rituals and celebration. The oldest organized form of wrestling, Greco-Roman style or "college" wrestling is one of the few sports featured at both the ancient and modern Olympic games. Professional wrestling, which has always relied on theatrics to draw crowds, began in the late 1800's at carnivals and county fairs has evolved into a multi-million dollar business 100 years later.
The modern day version of professional wrestling, around since the early 1980's when Vince McMahon Jr., who seems to enjoy his role as sociological experimenter, took over the World Wrestling Federation from his father, has become one large metaphor to society. In Ramsey's essay, he refers to a book by Professor John Fiske, called "Understanding Popular Culture," in which Fiske uses Bahktin's Theory of Carnival to show some of the metaphorical concepts used in professional wrestling. The three main elements of carnival commonly seen in the professional wrestling ring are: 1) ritual spectacles; 2) comic compositions, parodies, travesties, comic crownings and uncrownings and; 3) various genres of billingsgate, curses, oaths, and popular blazons. Or, as "Cowboy" Scott Casey said in an article about professional wrestling in Texas, written by Adam Zagorin, and taken from Time, "You've got grown men over 250 pounds. engaging in the world's oldest sport. We're gladiators. People love to watch violence because it's just like real life."
Aside from the glitz and glamour, professional wrestling is similar to the circus or carnival in that it is family based and family driven. In the late 1970's when 15 or so major wrestling organizations existed, over half were owned and operated by families. Today, there is only a handful of major organizations left, but the biggest and most popular, the World Wrestling Federation is running strong with Vince McMahon Jr., a third-generation promoter, at the helm. His son, Shane, recently graduated from Roger Williams University and Boston University, has begun to work for the company he will one day take over. McMahon Jr. is credited in a 1991 Sports Illustrated article, penned by William Oscar Johnson, as the man who turned professional wrestling into family entertainment. Like promoters, the entertainers themselves also tend to be raised in a professional wrestling environment. Two well-known families with several multi-generational champions known throughout the world of professional wrestling are the Hart family, headed by Stu Hart, of which brothers Bret (the current WWF champion) and Owen (former tag-team champion) have been dukeing it out in a case of sibling rivalry not seen since Cain and Abel, and The Von Erich Family. The Von Erichs (real last name: Adkisson), headed by father Fritz, have had their hardships played out in public as four of the five brothers, all former wrestlers, have committed suicide, blamed in part to public scrutiny.
Although many wrestlers from the 50's and 60's have publicly criticized McMahon from getting away from the rough-and-tumble style they made popular in their day, few would disagree is the most creative when it comes to setting up "angles", or story lines. Ramsey looks at the different stereotypes created and explored within professional wrestling and the reasons behind them. A 1985 Sports Illustrated article by Bruce Newman tries to explore why wrestling went through a boom period in the mid-80's. Bobby "The Brain" Heenan, a manager who called his stable of wrestlers "The Family", said it had to do with a leniency of the rules. While some promoters and matchmakers create angles exploring some of society's values and mores, another manager Paul Heyman, known as Paul E. Dangerously, revealed in a 1993 New York Times interview that he was once suspended from Ted Turner's World Championship Wrestling organization for trying to make social commentary. Dangerously, a typical "bad guy" heel manager with a flair for oration broke away from his character and was trying legitimately to express his disgust for the lack of empathy in the world and get fans to help those in need, but it was misinterpreted by Turner Broadcasting administration as poking fun at the homeless.
An important note to address is the lack of true literature about the professional wrestling business. The mix of sport and entertainment causes the abundance of material written about professional wrestling to be in "kayfabe" language. Kayfabe is the term meaning "what you see is what you get." Few promoters and wrestlers are willing to break character to "expose" the business as something beyond pure sport. The fans who spend the most on wrestling are the ones who believe what they see, so therefore magazines like WWF Magazine, Pro Wrestling Illustrated ,and Inside Wrestling all cater to the audience being kayfabed. They do their job in analyzing the story lines and angles being put across by the wrestling companies, but use extreme creative license in reporting the truth. True sports and news magazines like Time, Sports Illustrated, and Life rarely do stories about professional wrestling even though it competes with rock concerts, the circus, and ice shows in attendance and money figures because the line between entertainment and sport is a fuzzy one. Among the few places fans who have a deeper understanding of the sport can turn are the Internet and the "sheets". The sheets are newsletters which treat wrestling as business, reporting on both the in-ring activities and the behind-the-scenes aspects of things. There are three main "families" in professional wrestling. First are the performers, who play two roles. One, as their persona in the squared circle, loyal to being a "good guy" or "bad guy" and another as the citizens they are the rest of the day with families and bills. Sometimes that line is a hard one to delineate, other times its obvious. And finally the most important family is the legions of fans that go the arenas and tune in to see their heroes and villains on television.
Once Vince McMahon Jr. created the wrestling boom of the mid-80's with a product geared towards families, other organizations had to follow suit or go out of business. Along with beer-swigging rowdy males in their early 30's, children, and their parents began to show up at the arenas, creating a diverse mix of personalities watching a diverse mix of personalities put on a show. In Johnson article, he quotes Peter Luukko, who at the time was the general manager of the Los Angeles Coliseum and Los Angeles Sports Arena about the differences between fans from 1980 and 1990. Luukko credited McMahon for the change saying, "...Vince not only called it entertainment, he made into real entertainment - rock music, hype, stars, lights - and that brought fans out of the closet from every age group - teens, children under 10, film stars, attorneys, bankers and blue-collar people who came before." An anecdote told by part-time wrestler Jay "The Alaskan" York in Newman's article was when he learned what fans were really all about. Attending a card of wrestling to see friends perform, the person sitting next to York recognized him. "'I know you,' the young man said...'My wife cussed you out when you were in the ring...She called you a dirty no-good faggot. And you told her to come back to your apartment and you'd prove she was wrong.' The Alaskan looks sheepish, but the young man added, 'That was great, man." A 1985 commentary in Time written by Richard Corliss, incidentally in the Show Business section talks about the cross section of people who go to watch the spectacle: "For the few hours they spend together, the Perrier Set and Boilermaker Brigade have something in common: synthetic blood lust." The admission by WWF officials that pro wrestling was a "staged activity in which participants struggle hand-in-hand primarily for the purpose of providing entertainment...rather than conducting a bona fide athletic contest," as reported in a 1989 Sports Illustrated brief article didn't surprise or bother many people mentions Johnson in his article. He quotes French philosopher Roland Barthes who wrote in 1954 that, "the public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not, and rightly so; it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle." For those who accept the spectacle as real or just theater, Zagorin's article about wrestling in Texas draws some interesting comparisons between families leaving church on Sunday, with the families lined up next door to get into the Civic Center to see wrestling, and those that go directly from church to wrestling.
Families tend to share the same likes, dislikes, beliefs, and values. There is no better place to bond with the family than at a professional wrestling event. Bert Randolph Sugar, a long-time wrestling and boxing writer, wrote a personal recollection of attending his first wrestling event in 1950 with his mother in a 1985 article for Advertising Age. Sugar's mother was duped by her 13-year-old son into taking him to the card, thinking it would be a "society" event. To her dismay, "Imagine her surprise when she found herself seated smack dab in the midst of people the color of chewing tobacco." Although he says his mother didn't talk to him for a few months afterward, Sugar described the experience as, "all the pleasures of youth, more than enough to carry (Sugar) into adolescence." Sugar examined the sport in the mid-80's saying, "In a world of junk food and junk values, wrestling may be the most honest sport there is: everything that's supposed to happen does! At least that's how a 13-year-old who has never grown up sees it." One of Sugar's interesting insights is his belief that, "Wrestling serves as group therapy for the millions who watch it, a catharsis that more than any other sport admits to Haywood Hale Broun's definition of sports, 'a shared delusion.'" Zagorin's article features a short profile of a family who always takes in the Sunday wrestling matches together. The mother, a secretary with a finance company, said, "Wrestling is a release from day after day of working. You come here and yell and scream and yell and scream and go then home. My daughter loves it." In a letter from the publisher printed in a 1985 issue of Sports Illustrated, Robert L. Miller spoke of famous sports photographer Walter Iooss taking pictures for the accompanying article about pro wrestling inside. Iooss spoke of the role wrestling played in his family, a bonding with his sons when their mother isn't home. There are also the rabid fans who can't tell the difference between real and imaginary, and don't have the guidance at home to learn the difference. A 1985 brief in Sports Illustrated reported that a judge banned watching pro wrestling from one family's home after a mother, a wrestling fan herself, was attacked with a sleeper hold by one of her sons while fixing dinner. The children often referred to each other as Hulk Hogan and "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, the two most popular wrestlers at the time.
As the characters playing out the story lines, professional wrestlers often find themselves in "family" like situations. Whether it be a manager who has a "family" of wrestlers under his wing, a tag-team in which two partners work to achieve a common goal, or actual family portrayal, the concept of family is reasserted again and again in pro wrestling. As Paul E. Dangerously explained to The New York Times in 1993, "There is a brotherhood in wrestling where if you see a problem, you come help."
Perhaps the biggest problem that can happen to a family is divorce, and the story line of a tag-team splitting up over differences (one turning from a "bad guy" to "good guy" and vice versa), an actual family getting in an argument which can only be settled in the ring or a manager and wrestler severing ties, the concept of divorce is almost as rampant in pro wrestling as in society. A perfect recent example is from the kayfabe magazine The Wrestler in which Steve Anderson explains the latest big divorce, the break-up between World Championship Wrestling champion Hulk Hogan and his long-time manager, Jimmy Hart. A special addition to the article is a poll taken of 1,000 of their subscribers about how they feel concerning various issues of the break-up. Recognizing the fact that the subscribers are mainly people who take wrestling at face value, it is interesting to gauge their responses to the quasi-divorce.
Outside of the ring, professional wrestlers are like anybody else. They have their own sets of problems and worries to deal with, chief amongst them being trying to make it in a difficult business and trying to keep their real-life families together. The overwhelming majority of wrestlers do it only on a part-time basis because it just doesn't pay the bills, but for those who want to make it to the big time, they must sacrifice a lot for a dream that may never happen. Corliss quotes Professor Gerald Morton in his Time article about the life of a pro wrestler. Morton, who co-authored a book called Wrestling to Rasslin: Ancient Sport to American Spectacle, said, "They have no union, no workmen's comp. The promoters, like the old dock foremen, essentially say who is going to work and who isn't. I admire their total commitment to quality in a profession fraught with danger." For wrestlers who focus their style more on acrobatic technique, Japan is one of the few places to learn the craft correctly. Cactus Jack (real name: Michael Foley) said in a 1995 interview posted on the Internet that working for American federations isn't that hard anymore, since the decline in popularity since the mid-80's causes independent promotions to book only on weekends. "But when I go to Japan," he said, "the book for weeks at a time and I'm away from my family a lot. But I always make sure to call home a lot." For Joe D'Acquisto, who has gone under the names Big Joe Nasty, The Rochester Roadblock, The Wild Thing, and The Mummy, the quest to make it big in professional wrestling has come at the expense of his relationship with his son. In a 1990 article for Rolling Stone, Glen Duffy examined D'Acquisto's attempts to achieve stardom and the prices he's had to pay. "The occasional visits home to Rochester," Duffy wrote, "has revealed only an increasing distance from things that mattered - especially his son, who brooded, unappeased by explanations of the new person his father was becoming and a career plan that perplexed even the adults around him." His son even refused to go watch his father wrestle, since he views it as "...just something Daddy does when he's not home." Career problems for professional wrestlers can include conflicting ideas with the promoter as former WWF champion from 1978 to 1983 Bob Backlund attested to in a 1985 Sports Illustrated article by N. Brooks Clark. In the article, Backlund, who had no gimmick during his title reign, said that as the WWF and pro wrestling began to boom under Vince McMahon Jr., the company wanted Backlund to become a "bad guy." Backlund left the WWF after he lost the title in early 1984. "'I was told I wasn't marketable,'" said Backlund in the article. "'I try to be a good role model for the kids. That stuff is very important to me. I was told my morals were too high. (Vince Jr.) and I have a strong difference of opinion. I want my wife and daughter to be proud of me. I don't want them embarrassed because I made a fool of myself on TV. I can't control what the whole business does, but I can control what Bob Backlund does." Following his release, Backlund wrestled for a few independent organizations before retiring. But in 1994, he came back, as bland as ever. While everyone had a gimmick, he was the lone holdout. And then something happened. Suffice to say, he has shaved his head and now wrestles with the "bad guy" gimmick of running for president while putting the fans down. Whether this was finally an acceptance of the way pro wrestling had changed, or if he just needed the money is unknown. Backlund refuses to do interviews and speak to fans out of kayfabe mode now. But perhaps the biggest soap opera which has been played in and out of the ring for the wrestling world to see over the past 15 years has been the real-life marriage and divorce of pro wrestler Randy Poffo and manager Elizabeth Hulette, and the in-ring marriage and divorce of their characters, Randy "Macho Man" Savage and Miss Elizabeth. The two were legally married in the early 80's when both worked for the International Championship Wrestling circuit. Savage was the champion (who ironically beat his real life brother for the title) and Elizabeth was a broadcaster. Several years later they ended up in the WWF together. After a courtship of five or six years, the two characters got married in the ring at a pay-per-view event. About a year later, the two were legally divorced. Savage had gone into semi-retirement, wrestling only on pay-per-views and an occasional television taping. During a live program, he blurted out that he and Elizabeth got a divorce, so the WWF had to work that into the character. (They never explained why Elizabeth stopped showing up at ringside, and they still referred to her even though she was no longer under contract.) In April of 1993, Wrestlemania VIII was held in Caeser's Palace in Las Vegas. It was supposed to mark Hulk Hogan's triumphant return after a year in retirement. The night before however, as many Internet insiders say, Savage attacked Hogan to the surprise of all. Hogan left the WWF for Hollywood and rival World Championship Wrestling shortly thereafter. In November of 1993, Savage gave what is known as a "shoot" interview on WWF Radio. A "shoot" interview is where all kayfabe is dropped and the wrestler speaks the truth. On the rare occasion a "shoot" is performed, it usually without prior knowledge of the promoter and often leads to termination with the company. Savage went on WWF radio and gave a "shoot" interview about why he and Elizabeth got divorced in real life. In the transcript of the interview available on the Internet, Savage blamed long-time friends of he and Elizabeth, Hulk Hogan (Terry Bollea) and his wife Linda for filling Elizabeth's head with ideas. After four days of staying with Hogan and his wife after a fight with Savage, Elizabeth filed for divorce. Savage, who didn't blame Elizabeth during the interview blamed Hogan and his wife, saying the were trying to wreck the Poffo's marriage. "She thought she had the best friend in Hulk Hogan's wife. But now we both know. Can you believe the fact that Linda and Liz don't even talk now? So what kind of friends do you think they were? It's almost like (Hogan and his wife) got the job done," said Savage. About a year later, Savage was wooed to Ted Turner's World Championship Wrestling, the same organization that Hulk Hogan was champion of. And as always in the world of wrestling, money talks. Hogan and Savage were teamed together, and remain a team to this day. Their personal status is unknown, however it is a point of interest that Miss Elizabeth was recently brought back to manage Hogan and Elizabeth, along with Hogan's wife, but apparently Savage and Elizabeth were not getting along so Elizabeth was turned into a "bad guy manager" in early February of 1996. The soap opera of Savage-Elizabeth, Poffo-Hullette continues.
The three families that make up professional wrestling mirror each other the way that professional wrestling mirrors society as a whole. Relationships are made and broken, love is won and lost, and sacrifices have to be made on all levels. Wrestling is not a sport and neither is family life. Both contain many levels of glitz to hide what is really at the core. In Corliss' article, Professor Morton said, "The wrestlers are characters in a continuing story that extends over a series of traumatic situations, with elements of the ludicrous. Wrestling can't be fixed because it was never intended to be a sport. You wouldn't say Hamlet was fixed." No you wouldn't. Neither is family life.
Paintbrushes and Pinfalls
Rob Elowitch looks back at his two lives
by Joshua Shea
PORTLAND, Maine -- When a pillar of the community is exposed as being something other than what people thought, they are often looked down upon. Rob Elowitch had a secret from 1963 through 1985. When he decided to go public, details of his secret life were spread across the front page of local and even some national news papers. He was featured on the national news of every network, and was fodder for magazines. Elowitch, a local art dealer from an affluent family was revealed to be Robbie Ellis, a professional wrestling champion.
Elowitch, now 53 years old, was exposed as a professional wrestler at 42 years old when he reluctantly agreed to be billed on a card of wrestling held in Portland. Only his wife, children, and a handful of friends knew that the nationally renowned art dealer was spending his weekends and business trips grappling with people half his age who were trying to wrest the International Championship Wrestling lightweight championship belt from around his waist.
"My parents sort of knew, but they thought it had something to do with coaching wrestling," said Elowitch, who had hid the secret by not competing on cards in his hometown. "Only my immediate family and closest friends knew, but once it hit I was on the front page of the local paper."
Many other media outlets, including Sports lIlustrated which profiled Elowitch in their "Legends" section, picked up on the Portland Press Herald story and within a few weeks, Elowitch's secret was out of the bag and on every television news show in America from ABC's World News Tonight to The Osgood Files to The Macneil/Lehrer News Hour.
"We got contacted from people all over the world, it was very strange," said Elowitch. "People who I hadn't talked to in years were coming out of the woodwork. A lot of news shows thought I was a cute story, but I never thought of it that way until the tidal wave of publicity hit and then I thought 'yeah, this is a pretty good story.' The whole thing was very strange."
Following the national media attention, Elowitch got offers to work for Verne Gagne's American Wrestling Association out of Minnesota and Ted Turner's World Championship Wrestling out of Atlanta, which were two of the three top professional wrestling organizations in the United States in the mid 1980's. But Elowitch was content holding and competeing for regional lightweight titles throughout the New England area for promotions run by independent groups.
"Up to the time the publicity hit, I had never went on the road just for wrestling, and when the offers hit, they had to understand that I had no interest in going out to Minnesota," said Elowitch.
After all, just because moonlighting as Robbie Ellis had gone public in a big way for Elowitch, there was no need for him to change his life around. He had been an independent promotions wrestler for 22 years before the publicity boom and outing of 1985, and he continues to remain one today. The big influence in his decision not to go "big time," as he refers to the national promotions, was his art dealing career.
"I shouldn't compare them, but art is my first love and my first life. Wrestling is a close second, although I suppose professional wrestling is connected in some way" said Elowitch.
The Art Dealer
The arts, both perfoming and visual, have always played a part in Elowitch's life. He grew up in a lower-income Jewish family, yet his mother always made sure their kids got culture, saving up and taking them to see the original productions of such shows as "My Fair Lady" and "The King and I".
"The arts have always been a life long love of mine," said Elowitch.
Elowitch was a cum laude graduate of Amherst College, leaving with a degree in theater.
"I had no intention of making it my livelihood," he said about prospects of becoming a professional actor.
After he left college, Elowitch and his wife moved to New York, but then came back to Maine a short time later. He went to work for his father's business, a thriving manufacturing company, but said he found it boring, so he and wife, Annette, who he married as a senior at Amherst, began getting involved in the arts scene in Maine.
The founder and director of the world famous Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture recognized Elowitch and his wife had strong community connections (his father's company was well known and his sister is a former mayor of Portland) and as they could assist the school monetarily, they could learn about the art world.
"Everybody who was anybody in 20th century art either taught or was a student there," said Ellis, citing pop-culture artist Andy Warhol as an example. "Most people in Maine don't even know it exists. The school has a small faculty and artists decide who gets to go there, most on scholarship."
Cummings died of cancer several years later, the week that the Elowitches opened their gallery.
"He was a great man. It's symbolic that we opened the week he died," said Elowitch.
The Elowitches decided to name their gallery Baridoff Galleries because it was an old family name and they liked the ring of it.
"Elowitch is just not a good name for a gallery," he explained. "We wanted it to sound like it had been around for a while and Baridoff is a family name from Russia. When I told my dad we were going to call it Baridoff Gallery, he was happy that there was a connection and that it wasn't called Elowitch Gallery."
One of the downsides of not naming the gallery after themselves was that many people often mistake their last name as Baridoff. Elowitch said people will routinely call the gallery and ask to speak to "Mr. or Mrs. Baridoff."
The Elowitches opened their gallery to the public in 1975 just above the Old Port district in downtown Portland, but were forced to close the public space during the recession.
"We never really had customers coming off the street, but we liked having a public space for the public to utilize," said Elowitch, "but during the recession they stopped using it and it was costing too much."
The Elowitches continue to run Baridoff Gallery out of their home, doing most of their business by telephone. The husband and wife duo have sold works by such American painters as Homer and Eakins for prices as high as $225,000. Elowitch often makes trips around the country to view paintings, and if he can take in a wrestling match while on the road, so be it.
Before he started taking wrestling lessons, Elowitch once joked to his then fiance, Annette, that one day he would be a professional wrestler. She told him if he did, she would never marry him. Thus began the secrecy.
Like most children born in the dawn of television, professional wrestling was a staple in Elowitch's home.
"In the late 40's and early 50's I watched Texas wrestling on television on Friday and Saturday nights. Like every other kid, I wanted to be world champion, even though I was small," he said.
Elowitch didn't pursue wrestling until he was walking around Boston one day while in college. He saw a sign advertising pro wrestling lessons at the Boston Arena Annex. The following weekend he started his journey on the professional wrestling road.
"I put on a pair of tights to make me look as big as possible and went back to Boston," he said. "I knocked on the door and a guy named Tony Santos answered. When I told him I wanted to be a wrestler, he laughed. When I told him I could pay for the lessons, which were $300, he called a guy named Billy Graham who was a cop from Attleboro and Graham worked with me every Sunday morning."
In order to sneak away from college and his fiance, Elowitch told Annette that he was having check ups for a bladder problem. He never wrestled a professional match, nor told Annette about the lessons before they married and moved to New York. After their brief stay in New York, the Elowitches moved back to Portland, where Rob started getting phone calls to wrestle on undercards of local shows. He agreed, but first went back to Boston to get refresher lessons. It was at this point he decided his wife needed to know the truth. "I felt like I was cheating on her, and in a way, I was," said Elowitch. "One night at a party I decided to tell her. I went up to her and said 'I have something very important to tell you'. And when I told her, she was actually relieved!"
Soon after the admission, Elowitch wrestled his first professional match against Pepe Perez. The match was held in a heavily Puerto Rican area, and even though Elowitch was supposed to be the "good guy", the crowd disliked him and cheered Perez.
"They booed me since I was so tiny and looked like such an asshole in my white tights and white boots," said Elowitch. "I got in the ring and just started flying around throwing dropkicks. About two minutes later I was so tired I couldn't move. I tried to tell Pepe Perez we needed to finish this because I couldn't move, but he just kept picking me up and throwing me around. I finally got it across to the referee that I couldn't continue and he told Perez."
Back then, 33 years ago, Elowitch wrestled as Danny Diamond. Since then his ring persona has undergone changes and now he is known as a cocky "bad guy" who bills himself as Robbie "The Sports Illustrated Legend" Ellis.
"It's a lot of fun wrestling as a heel. It was getting boring being a good guy," said Elowitch. "It's more interesting and it's an ego trip if I can go out there and be an asshole and get people to hate me. I like my character, but I need to be in the ring with someone who can play off the character."
Elowitch now only wrestles one or two matches a month, either for the New England Pro Wrestling group out of Salisbury, MA, where he holds the lightweight title, or for independent promoters across New England. On the occasions he tries to wrestle several nights in a row now, his 53 year old body often tells him not to.
"I don't like wrestling three nights in a row, and my body doesn't like me even wrestling two nights in a row," he said.
But like many people around the half-century mark in the mat game, Elowitch has no plans to quit.
"I want to wrestle as long as I can and don't ever want to stop, it's too much fun. I was lucky. I got a lot of glory without making it completely my life."
From the ring to the lens:
In any given night, Tom Buchanan gets to take pictures of brothers who are pig farmers, beautiful scantily clad women, ageing rockers, and even a guy who thinks he's death. And he says he's getting bored of it.
Tom has been associated with the World Wrestling Federation in different photography aspects for the past 11 years, but to understand his growth as a part-time free-lancer who marveled at standing in the center of thousands of screaming fans in the great arenas of this country to someone who doesn't care when he sees a cover photo on the most popular wrestling magazine in the world, one needs to go back to the beginning.
Tom worked for six years as a newspaper photographer at the Utica Observer-Dispatch and Rome Daily Sentinel. In the mid-80's, he contacted Steve Taylor, a former newspaper photographer and asked him for a letter of recommendation. Taylor, who was photography director for the World Wrestling Federation wrote Tom the letter and Tom got the job. But like most newspaper photographers, Tom was always looking for free-lance work on the side.
Since one person scratches another person's back, Tom owed Taylor a favor. Taylor contacted Tom in early 1985 about doing some photography for the WWF's biggest event ever, Wrestlemania, set for late March in Madison Square Garden. To get some practice photographing the fast-paced action of professional wrestling, Taylor sent Tom to Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens.
"I never watched it as a kid," said Tom. "I just didn't care. But as a photographer it was great. I was blown away. It was all color and the lighting was perfect."
The Toronto experience was only the tip of the iceberg for the excitement that Wrestlemania held. The main event was Hulk Hogan and Mr. T. against "Rowdy" Roddy Piper and Paul "Mr. Wonderful" Orndorff. Among celebrities who participated in the event were the late Liberace, the late Billy Martin, and the soon-to-be-late Muhammed Ali.
"The crowd action was amazing," said Tom. "It's something to be in the middle of Madison Square Garden when the whole place is erupting." The event was held in the afternoon in order for a New York Rangers game to be held that evening. Tom, who followed the Rangers as a kid, was thrilled to be in the backstage area as the Rangers began to show up for the game.
The WWF threw a big party at the Rainbow Room following the event which Tom described as "first class". His experience with the WWF was so positive, he went to Taylor and asked him to keep sending assignments his way. For the next three years, Tom worked as a newspaper photographer during the week and for the WWF on the weekends.
Finally, after turning down a full-time position with the WWF twice, Tom decided to put his newspaper days behind him and join the WWF as their full-time "action photographer". Tom doesn't regret his decision to leave the newspaper industry. "It was a good place to work for six years, but I'd never go back," he said. "There just isn't any growth." Tom, who said his favorite part about working for newspapers was the ability to tell a story with his pictures said that even with the decline of major newspapers he thinks local papers will always have a place in the world.
As "action photographer" Tom was pegged to film 16-18 shows a month, which put him on the road for about 25 days a month. He has traveled to 46 states (Idaho, North Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana elude the perfect 50) and many countries like England, Japan, Guam, and Spain. Although he would try and do some sightseeing at the exotic locations he traveled to, the schedule was so hectic it often prohibited him from seeing anything besides the interiors of the great arenas of the world. His job was to take pictures of the in-ring action for the WWF Magazine, which is a monthly publication which started in 1982, the programs which are available at the live cards, and a few other publications put out by the WWF.
After the boom period of the mid and late 80's, the WWF was forced to cutback on expenditures. Taylor was promoted to a high administrative position within the company, leaving Tom as the sole photographer. To save money, the WWF cut all foreign trips out for non-essential staff and Tom had to begin doing studio photography, which he continues to this day.
Studio photography, which takes place both at the home office in Stamford, Connecticut and at the television tapings takes up the bulk of Tom's time now. The wrestlers are photographed in front of blank backgrounds and the pictures are used as publicity stills and also appear in all WWF publications. Tom tries to update wrestlers every six months and whenever their appearance or gimmick changes. "I just shot the Undertaker again since he got rid of the mask and had more tattoos," said Tom giving an example.
Another example of a wrestler changing their gimmick is Marty Jannetty. Jannetty, who has played a cutting-edge, hip, rock-n'-roller for the past 15 years recently was placed in a tag-team with Lief Cassidy, played by Al Snow, who is new to the WWF. Since Jannety will be wrestling primarily as a tag-team wrestler again, Tom had to take pictures of the new team. The team name is called "The New Rockers", since Jannetty was in a tag-team during the late-80's and early-90's called "The Rockers." When Marty took some time off from the WWF and worked with the more hardcore group ECW, the promoters wanted to team him with Ricky Morton, who has also been playing the hipster for nearly 20 years. They wanted the gimmick of the team to be that they were lame because they still thought they were cool. When I mentioned that calling Marty and Al "The New Rockers", might be a dig at Marty still thinking he was cutting-edge cool, Tom just laughed and said, "That's Marty."
To assist in cost cutting, and because he was so busy doing studio shots in Stamford, Tom's travel schedule has been drastically cut in the past few years. He now is supposed to work 40 hours a week, but averages between 48-50, and depending on the week can work as many as 70 or 80 hours. He now spends around 10 days a month on the road filming the live action of five or six shows. One of those shows is a pay-per-view, one is the live and taped versions of Monday Night RAW, another is a card that features all other television taping for the month, and he tries to sneak in a couple of regular non-televised house shows because as he says, "we always need pictures."
It is important Tom get the right shots at the television and pay-per-view cards, because they are where the story line evolve, so he wears a headset which the stage manager, television producers and directors, and other important personnel wear. The director will read the script into the headset so Tom can prepare for a shot he wants to get.
"I try to hear when they call big spots," explained Tom. "The director may say there will be an elbow room followed by a bodyslam and then one wrestler will throw the other over the top rope. I want to get the over the top rope shot, so I prepare for that, but the wrestlers don't always do what's scripted."
At one of the television tapings, Tom hires a free-lance photographer to shoot the action shots around the ring while he does the studio shots in the backstage area. Since the bigger stars are always on the road, and when they are on vacation they have their time committed elsewhere. Tom explained there was no real correlation between a wrestler's personality in the ring and their attitude towards getting their photos taken.
"The top stars have been doing it the longest, so they are true professionals, plus they have the added pressure of having their time limited," said Tom.
At the arena house shows not filmed for television, Tom doesn't have to worry about doing studio shots, and can hang out around the ring doing action photos. At these shows however he doesn't have the benefit of a headset, so he doesn't always know what move is coming up next. If he covers enough house shows in a short amount of time, and the same wrestlers face each other, he can get a feeling as to how the match will run and what moves will follow.
The other thing house shows don't offer that the television tapings do is a huge array of lights. So Tom has to show up early, and often with the help of local union employees sets up a bank of lights.
The lighting technology Tom uses was invented by Sports Illustrated in the 70's. Tom arrives about four hours before the show and sets up six large strobe lights into a U-shape around the catwalk high above the arena. A remote battery pack that Tom has by the ring when he takes the photos sends a message to the strobe lights to let out a mighty flash. The power of the flash is 5-7 times that of regular light, according to Tom.
Tom has recently branched out from still photography and has begun producing promotional spots that appear at the beginning of WWF programs. The series of spots, featuring the curvaceous Tammy "Sunny" Fytch in a variety of skimpy attire were shot on Miami Beach and supervised entirely by Tom. He said that he enjoys this aspect of the job and would like to try doing them more often. But Tom says he's bored. Why? To millions, he's got the dream job. He gets to travel, he attends the premier wrestling events, and he gets to hang out on the beach with one of the most beautiful women in the world.
"11 years is a long time," said Tom. "You get bored after doing something for a long time."
And again, it is a question of growth within the industry.
"There is no growth. Since Taylor has moved into management, it's only been me," he said. Tom added that for the past couple of years he's been thinking about leaving wrestling, usually around Wrestlemania time.
Come March 29, the WWF will celebrate Wrestlemania 12 and Tom will celebrate 12 years of working with the finest form of hybrid sports entertainment that exists. Although few know his name, every wrestling fan knows his work. I've been lucky enough to be in a position to get to know the man behind the lens. If he does leave wrestling, it will be a blow to anybody who has spent any time watching WWF wrestling. I know he needs to do what's right for him, but in the almost one year that Tom and I have been communicating I have felt closer to the "sport" I grew up watching as a kid. It was larger than life, and Tom finally gave it a human element and was the first to treat me as a non-mark fan, and rather someone who genuinely enjoys the theater known as professional wrestling. Personally I hope he stays. I can look through WWF magazine and feel some kind of connection, but either way, I can say I know the staff photographer for the WWF and he is a class act.
Body Slamming their way across the Information Superhighway:
Fans, promoters, and wrestlers come together on the Internet
Dozens have asked him to join. People approach him and ask if he is indeed one of the members they have heard of. He is known throughout the country. He is a member of the MOB.
If not for the Internet, the MOB would have never formed. No, this is not a high-tech organized crime syndicate. This MOB is the Mutants of Boston, an organized professional wrestling syndicate known throughout the Internet newsgroup Rec.Sport.Pro-Wrestling as the ultimate wrestling groupies.
Rec.Sport.Pro-Wrestling is a board in the usenet newsgroups area of the ever-expanding Internet. With equal access to "mark" fans who believe everything that takes place in the ring to professional wrestlers who make their livelihood in making those people believe, it has become a United Nations for the professional wrestling world.
Pulling no punches, and keeping no secrets, anybody browsing through the approximate 500 new daily postings can find results to matches before they happen, potential story line development, business dealings that take place behind the scenes, anecdotes about professional wrestling, and a myriad of opinions.
The bulk of the people who post messages regularly to the newsgroup are "smarks" or smart marks who understand wrestling is not pure sport, that the matches and angles are carefully predetermined, but nonetheless still love professional wrestling and the structure that makes it run.
A typical smark RSPW entry, recently posted about World Wrestling Federation Intercontinental Champion, Goldust:
Goldust (Dustin Rhodes/Runnels) is not gay he is in fact married to Marlena/Alexadra York (don't remember her real name), and it is an act, if Dusty Rhodes (Virgil Runnels Jr.) said anything about this it is also an act, although I doubt he would as WCW would not have anything to do with WWF.
Perhaps nobody is a bigger smark than Eric Holma, 21, of Milton, Mass., known as The Immortal Spam and the spiritual leader of the Mutants of Boston, a quartet of smarks from the Boston area who came to meet through regular postings on RSPW, as regulars call it.
"If not for RSPW, the MOB would never have formed," said Holma. "I met Nat (a fellow mutant) when I was looking for a ride to the television tapeings in nearby Lowell, Mass. Then we met (the other two mutants) Joe and Wilson at Joe's house when he posted, inviting people from the net to watch pay-per-views at his house."
Since then, Holma and his crew have traveled all over New England, and have even ventured as far south as Richmond, Va. to witness professional wrestling.
Following one of the MOB's "Great Road Trips", as they refer to them on the Internet, the foursome often post anecdotal stories about their travels, often not focussing on the inside-the-ring activities as much as stories about what they ate for dinner before the matches. And they have become known worldwide throughout the Internet wrestling community for such tales, even starting their own Mutants of Boston homepage on the World Wide Web, the section of the Internet which incorporates graphics with text.
Among the more popular features of their web page, which Holma maintains, and which can be accessed at http://www.ccs.neu.edu/home/spam/mutants.html, is the ever changing top ten cool things the Mutants of Boston have done:
Having Erik Watts (a wrestler) tell us to F*** off!
The Immortal Spam getting to be IWF Ring Boy!
The Natster almost getting to take a bump in the IWF!
Getting kicked out of Fan Fest for our "RSPW" sign!
Making Vince McMahon speechless! (When we showed him our "What About Bruno" sign at Night to Remember)
Making Psycho Sid crack up with our Psycho Sid bleeding knife sign!
Holding up our pirate flag at a TV taping and getting purposely shown on t.v.! (Jean Pierre LeFeitte, a pirate character, was wrestling)
Getting to dance in the ring with the Public Enemy!
Sneaking a keyboard into ECW Arena, and having Johnny Grunge use it on one of the Gangstas!
Mr. Wilson and Charlie getting to drive Johnny Grunge and Woman to their hotel after an ECW show in Salisbury, MA!
The Immortal Spam getting chokeslammed by 911!
"If I go to a show, I will post about us going to it and the results of the card," explained Holma. "I also enjoy reading stories of other people's experiences at shows, so I include that too." And apparently, other fans enjoy it also.
"I love reading the house show reports and the stories about other fans meeting wrestlers," said Angela Shortt, a 37-year-old playwright from Sacramento, Calif. "It's fun."
Holma represents the average RSPW user. He got hooked on wrestling in the mid-1980's, is in his late-teens or early 20's, and recognizes the fact it's an entertainment industry. Although the occasional 10-year-old mark who still believes the action is all on-the-level is tolerated in cyber-wrestling land, the individuals least liked are the ones who try to convince everyone that wrestling is fake. "It's not fake, it's predetermined!" said Holma with a wink. "People say we're smart marks, but actually there are a lot of adults out there, people who are old enough to know better, who really need the 'Santa Claus Speech'."
The "Santa Claus Speech", as any smark could tell you is the standard response to the inevitable, "Don't you know wrestling is fake?" comments received both on-line and off from non-fans.
Jamie Stafford-Evans, a 30-year-old programs analyst from Andover, Mass. knows the routine.
"When people tell me wrestling is fake, I say 'No, really? What about Santa Claus?" said Evans, who says along with sex and coffee, wrestling is one of his favorite things to "live, sleep, and breathe."
The overwhelming reason fans go on-line is for information that is not generally released to the general public. One can hear about contract disputes, proposed matches, or results to television tapings long before they've been aired on television on standard wrestling programming produced by the companies. Although newsletters release the information on a weekly basis, and 1-900 telephone hotlines will give the information, RSPW is usually the fan's first place to check for the latest news.
"RSPW doesn't offer much to people who get to see a lot of wrestling and subscribe to the newsletters and call hotlines," explains James Kalyn, a 19-year-old student from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. "But if offers a lot to me. All we get in our area is (television shows) WWF RAW and WCW WorldWide. It's the best source of inside information, results, discussion, rumors, etc." Although some of the major on-line services like America Online and Prodigy have contracts with the biggest wrestling groups, since RSPW is available on the Internet, the discussion is not moderated or censored, as it can when the wrestling organization was controlling it.
Joe Sposto, an 18-year-old telemarketer from Taylor, Penn. says he could do without the bulletin board type of services as long as RSPW continues on.
"There are lots of bulletin boards and services like Prodigy or America Online, but there you only get select (information)," said Sposto. "I would choose RSPW over any other service any day. It has proven to be more reliable in the past than others." Davy Nicholson, a 42-year-old fan from the Shetland Islands, who has been to around 250 wrestling cards in his over 30 years of watching wrestling said the quickness with which he gets news is unavailable anyplace else other than the Internet. "The speed with which all the information becomes available - results, new angles, talent coming in or going out," explained Nicholson. "Also the news comes from dozens of different sources and is mostly at fan level."
This fan-level interaction and information exchange is important to many regular users of the newsgroup.
"RSPW actually allows the fans to express their likes and dislikes of what's going on in professional wrestling, as well as giving important information," said Janie Jones, an 18-year-old college student from Los Angeles, who can be found under the pseudonym "College Girl" on the Internet.
And while many fans of the mat game initially turned to the Internet for other purposes, there is a good portion of fans who went on-line looking specifically for wrestling information.
"It was the reason I got into it," said Shortt. "A wrestling nut like me has to have a daily fix!"
"I knew there was something out there somewhere, along with a lot of other cool stuff, which is why I wanted to get on-line," said Kalyn.
One of the few problems which plague many serious users of the newsgroup is the abundance of useless postings, which takes up bandwidth, or when a mark fan will stumble upon the newsgroup and reveal their lack of understanding of the many levels to professional wrestling:
Each of the Alliance to End Hulkamania should get to fight the Huckster in a WOMAN'S SHOE MATCH!!!! The shoe would be put on one of the ringposts, and whoever got in first could use it. It would be like a kendo stick match!
"My first post was like many other's first post," said Jonathan Steckelberg, a 24-year-old student from Cary, Ill. "I made a message about wanting to see Diesel jackknife the crap out of Bob Holly. I then soon realized that was pretty dumb because first time posters always say stupid things like that."
Along with first time posts comes bickering between fans and personal attacks, which most agree are a pain to sift through in order to find the legitimate information.
Stafford-Evans finds that he posts infrequently because having to weed through the nonsense is too much of a task, and contributing to the problem might be a mistake.
"The reason I use it is for information purposes. That coupled with the garbage being strewn around makes for very few posts from me," he said.
Wrestling fans are also able to address some wrestlers and promoters directly, who have made it publicly known that they frequent RSPW.
Marc Mero, who wrestled under the name Johnny B. Badd for World Championship Wrestling bought a computer so he could interact with fans.
"A fan told me about RSPW, so I bought a computer and went the whole nine yards," explained the former WCW TV Champion, who has recently began working with the World Wrestling Federation. "I got a folder on the Internet and really got into it. I use it as a way to say thanks."
Merro, who is known as the most gracious wrestler on RSPW, will send autographed pictures and write to fans who drop him a line. "It's full of smart people who know what the business is about," said Mero, who added that he feels the Internet is a big part of the future of professional wrestling and will be a strong fan base in years to come.
Although many in the wrestling industry see releasing results of television tapeings before they air as detrimental to the wrestling business, Mero thinks it forces the companies to come up with a better product.
"It's hard to try and fool people who are on the Internet because they're so aware of the business and know the results. This can be good because it makes some wrestlers like me want to be creative," he explained. "People still know who wins, but they still want to watch to see what happens."
Steckleberg agrees with most of Mero's assessment of the smarter fans being on-line and the fact that promoters and angle creators have to now play to that audience as well.
"I think the promoters have recently become more aware of us smarks that are on-line and are trying to accommodate us some," said Steckleberg. "What I really hope is that the promoters realize how many of us are out there on the net and try even harder to keep us guessing their angles. Some angles have been great like Diamond Dallas Page vs. (Mero's character) Johnny B. Badd or have great starts but stopped short, while others just really suck. I realize promoters can't always turn out gold, but I think if they keep us interested, we'll always be around to consume their product."
The two major wrestling companies, the World Wrestling Federation and World Championship Wrestling have seen the popularity of RSPW over the past few years and have now created areas on commercial on-line services for fans' consumption. Bruce Pritchard, a creative consultant with the WWF says, however, he doesn't see the Internet playing a large role in the current scheme of things. "I think the Internet and computers as a whole could change the face of a lot once they become cheaper and simpler to use. I'm computer illiterate and I don't see the Internet having much of an effect on wrestling now. It may have an effect to those people who sit in front of their computers seven hours a day, but television is still our main avenue for us to get our information across," said Pritchard. Notwithstanding Pritchard's comments, many net-surfing fans claim being online has actually enhanced their love and increased their consumption of professional wrestling.
"Actually, I have become a bigger fan (since using RSPW)," said Stafford-Evans. "Even though I have a better idea of what's going to happen, I'm more into it at 30 than I was at 15."
"I'm a different fan now anyway," said Kalyn. "I was semi-markish before. I knew it was fixed before, but not much else, like behind-the-scenes stuff. I now know more, and I'm just as interested and I can still mark out when something surprises me, though less does now."
As for why these people who mainstream society feels should know better keep watching the spectacle, Holma sums it up the best. The occasional ability to surprise even the most knowledgeable fan keeps many RSPW insiders still glued to their sets. "I just like it," said Holma. "Wrestling when done well, is fascinating to watch. And when a great angle makes you mark out and shout out loud at your TV, then that's what it's all about."
Professional Wrestling's Obligation to Provide Moral Entertainment to its Fans
Those who understand and enjoy the theatrical aspects of professional wrestling can see the underlying subtext in the story lines, often including a moral lesson being pushed. Bert Randolph Sugar, a longtime boxing and wrestling writer, penned an article entitled "Wrestling Match a Morality Play for Our Time," in which he addresses the story lines and how they are presented. While scholars can see the moralistic story being presented, does the average fan realize they are being subjected to a moral lesson? Sugar says, "...wrestling serves as group therapy for the millions of people who watch it..." but are those people getting the message? And do the bookers and creative consultants, who write the story lines (called "angles" in the business) have an obligation to include a redeeming moral lesson with each new story line?
There aren't many "experts" who have addressed the issue of family values and morality in wrestling for a couple of reasons. First, wrestling, like other staged productions, operates under a cloak of believability. Just as one is aware that a simple man is playing the Phantom from "Phantom of the Opera", it is a simple man acting inside the squared circle. If either man were to deviate from their character while on stage the overall production would be ruined. But unlike the theater, wrestling tries to pass itself off as a legitimate entity even when the wrestlers are outside the ring. No sane man would claim to be the Phantom out of make-up if somebody were to approach them on the street. But many wrestlers maintain the image or "maintain kayfabe" when approached by fans outside of the ring. While wrestling has been a hybrid of sport and entertainment, the theater is strict entertainment, and does not have the reputation as a sleazy sideshow for degenerates that professional wrestling has had to battle for years. Second, as far as wrestlers go, few of them are willing to shed character, or break kayfabe, and discuss the relevance of their characters, both because they don't want to and the company doesn't want their mystique to be tainted. If Mark Calloway, who plays "The Undertaker", presumably a dead man, were to give an interview explaining the motivation behind his character and this reached the general wrestling public, the fun would be ruined for many fans who like the image of immortality The Undertaker portrays. The promoters are also leery about discussing the motivation behind their story line idea simply because to admit a story line exists is to admit that everything is not on the level. Thirdly, in mainstream media, wrestling, when addressed, is often portrayed as a joke. Entertainment magazines and shows have often viewed wrestling at a level below them, while sports magazines do not generally recognize wrestling as a sport. In the past week, several WWF wrestlers have been appearing on television shows like "Live with Regis and Kathie Lee" and "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" hyping a pay-per-view event to air March 29, WrestleMania XII. To gain interest and get people to purchase the pay-per-view, the wrestlers remain in character, much to the delight of the hosts, who often mock them and the sport. The only media outlets that regularly feature professional wrestling are the ones produced by the companies, and again, they are not in the practice of exposing the business with delineations of their employees' characters. Finally, although some scholars, most notably Roland Barthes, have examined wrestling, few find anything redeeming or worthy of attention in the wrestling world.
It becomes hard addressing the question of moral obligation when so few people will address the issue. I was able to obtain an interview with a former WCW world television champion, Johnny B. Badd, played by Georgia native Marc Mero. Mero believes bookers have a moral obligation to the fans. In contrast, Bruce Pritchard, now a creative consultant behind the scenes with the WWF who once had an on-air role as a televangelist character called Brother Love, doesn't see that bookers have an obligation to morality, but to story lines that reflect society and have decent endings.
Mero was involved in a story line that featured moral obligation most of last year and early this year. The story line, which started in mid-1995, centers around three people: Johnny B. Badd, "Diamond" Dallas Page, and Page's valet, The Diamond Doll. Throughout mid and late 1995, Page was continually getting more abusive toward The Diamond Doll. He would verbally berate her if she accidently cost him a match, and on occasion, physically abuse her with slaps. Page was the WCW Television Champion at the time. He dropped the title in a match with Johnny B. Badd in late 1995. Page blamed the Diamond Doll for the loss and began verbally abusing her following the match. Badd then struck Page for abusing the Diamond Doll. In a series of rematches, Badd would continue to hold the belt as the Diamond Doll would make "honest mistakes" and cost Page the title. During interviews that were occurring over this period of a couple months, the verbal abuse the Diamond Doll would take became worse and the abuse began to take its toll. Finally, Johnny B. Badd called for a match in which he would put up his television title and Page would put up the valet services of the Diamond Doll. In this match, Johnny B. Badd won, thus gaining the services of the Diamond Doll for his valet. Since she was no longer in the "abusive" relationship with Page and in a "healthy" one with Badd, her attitude and appearance changed. Instead of being told what to think by Page and not being allowed to speak in public, the Diamond Doll conducted many of Badd's interviews and talked about how much she enjoyed helping Badd train and plan strategy and be a part of a team, unlike when she was with Page. Also, instead of wearing long black dresses and moping around ringside, as she did when she was Page's valet, she often wore white shorts and halter tops and jumped around cheering for Page. In an interview, she said how much she enjoyed being her own person. The angle fizzled a bit from there, but only because things were happening behind the scenes which effected the story line.
Leaving the stage of the wrestling ring behind for a moment, it is important to note what was going on in reality. First, the participants of the angle have real identities. Johnny B. Badd is portrayed by Marc Mero, while the Diamond Doll is played by Kimberly Falkenberg-Page. She is actually married to Dave "Diamond Dallas" Page and they have a happy relationship, according to Mero, and all three are friends outside of the ring. As is often the case in the business of wrestling when new wrestlers are coming in and out of the organization and wrestlers are getting injured or coming back from injuries, story lines are generally not planned far into the future. According to a March 7, 1996 interview I conducted with Mero, the bookers who began writing the story line for the Page-Doll-Badd triangle had no idea how it would end.
But as the Diamond Doll became more popular, the bookers wanted to keep her with him.
The bookers were on one hand trying to create a decent feud between Page and Badd, while creating fan support for the Doll, who as an attractive woman was getting many cheers from male fans. If she was a fan favorite, then everybody would cheer for her, while they would cheer Badd for taking her away from the terrible situation Page had her in. Since all three are very good at playing their characters, fans became interested and voted the ongoing battle between the two the runner-up as "Feud of the Year" in the January 1996 issue of Pro Wrestling Illustrated. The promoters and bookers were happy because the feud was causing people to buy tickets and tune in to the WCW television programming. But as the moralistic "knight is shining armor saves damsel in distress" story line finished, bookers didn't know where to bring it, and Mero, who thought the "woman leaving and abusive relationship" angle was an important one to give the fans remained uncomfortable having a female valet who didn't share his out-of-ring values. Mero is a devout Christian who tries to do as much community service as possible. Falkenberg-Page just recently completed a pictorial for Playboy magazine, and while Mero has no problems with her decision as an adult to do so, he doesn't want the fans confusing him as someone who endorses such behavior. "Nothing against her, because she's a good person. I just wanted to move away from the angle. She's a nice person, but this is not what I'm all about. I'm a happily married man with a daughter and 100 percent Christian in my beliefs. I speak at a lot of functions to kids and bring my wife to the functions. A lot of kids come up to me and ask if the Doll is my wife and why she wasn't with me. It makes it awkward for my wife. It was never my idea to end up with her as my valet," explained Mero in the interview as to why he didn't want to end up with Falkenberg-Page as his valet. "The way I look at it, God blessed me. I can use pro wrestling as a platform to reach a lot of people, and then when I go around to church groups and speak, they know who I am because of the wrestling. If you look around, the world is getting morally and spiritually bankrupt and it's scary to think where we're going. Angle creators should use their position for social commentary and try to teach moral lessons. Enough people can get the gist of a moral lesson if you put it into an angle, but unfortunately the bookers don't even try to develop moral standards," said Mero.
While Mero wants to reach as many people as possible and talk about values, the promoters and bookers did not necessarily come to work in wrestling for the same reasons. They see their obligation is to entertain the fans and turn a profit for the company. One such person is Bruce Pritchard. Pritchard has done it all in wrestling, starting at the age of 10, working his way up to ring announcer and referee in his mid-teens, general manager of a Texas wrestling organization by the time he was 19. He went to the World Wrestling Federation years later to work as a creative consultant and help with the talent and production, and for a time served as an on-air personality who had the gimmick of being a televangelist who sided with the wrestlers the fans hated. Brother Love, as the character was known, would go around the audience screeching, "I looooooooove yewwwwwwwww!!!!!" much to the ire of the audience. His older brother Tom also works in wrestling, currently as a tag-team wrestler named "Zip the Body Donna." For almost all of his life wrestling has been a major part of Bruce Pritchard's life. In describing Pritchard, World Wrestling Federation Magazine Staff Photographer Tom Buchanan paraphrases the Brother Love character saying, "Pritchard is a great guy who after all these years still loooooooooves wrestling."
Having been involved in professional wrestling for over 25 years, Pritchard must know a thing or two about constructing an effective story line. And in his opinion, the most important thing is a happy ending. "Overall, the majority of people would prefer happy endings to the stories. The stories don't run over just one match or one show, they take weeks and months and people want to be satisfied when they come to an end.The job of the booker, says Pritchard, is not to create an idealized society complete with morals, but rather represent what is actually going on. "The majority of what takes place is a mirror to everyday life. I don't know if there is a moral obligation. I've never been one who signed on to the belief there has to be, so I'd disagree with that." Summing up his philosophy about working with the WWF, Pritchard said, "We are an entertainment company. We think of the product first and everything else second." So no, the promoters and bookers are not morally bankrupt despots with their mind on nothing but the almighty dollar. They want the fans to have a good time and see an entertaining show. When the fans start to collectively feel that they want something, whether it be more violence, more morals, or anything else, they have a way of letting the promoters and bookers know. They are called television ratings and revenue. People can let their voice be heard. Recently, the public outcry to curb violence on television resulted in the inventing of the V-chip. The Motion Picture Association of America instituted a ratings system in the late sixties to assuage parents' fears that their children were seeing inappropriate material. The record industry agreed to place warning stickers on record albums with adult language after groups of concerned citizens began to form. The public can and has changed the policies of various entertainment industries.
Many fans are now expressing severe displeasure with a character portrayed by Dustin Runnels called Goldust, who at 6'6" dresses in a gold outfit, paints his face gold, wears a long blond wig, and speaks in an effeminate manner. The premise behind Goldust is that he is using professional wrestling as a steppingstone to become a Hollywood movie star. He slinks around the ring, often caressing other male wrestlers, and sometimes even kissing them. His interviews are saturated with quotes from movies and homosexual innuendo. Although the "homosexual" character has been played before, nobody has played it as ambiguously or slyly as Runnels is doing. The double entendres and sexual innuendo have made many fans furious, but they are not furious at the WWF. The fans still appear at the shows, and take their anger directly out on Goldust in person. "The reason many people hate Goldust is because we've created a character whose actions many believe are wrong," explains Pritchard. "It is a fact of life that there are homosexuals, which we've never come out and said he is, out there. And it is also a fact that there are people who play with other people's minds. I think the real reason people hate him is because he has the guts to come out and do the things he does. They wish they had the guts to do something like that." Instead of Goldust being largely ignored, or a protest coming up from fans, the attention the fans have placed on Goldust have made the promoters give him a bigger publicity push, even giving him the second most important title in the WWF. Had Goldust just been ignored, the bookers and promoters probably would have dropped the gimmick.
Ultimately, since professional wrestling is a business, bookers don't have any obligation to place morals into story lines. They have an obligation to make money for the company by creating story lines which draw fan interest. Often, this means the wrestler favored by the fans will right some wrong that the wrestler vilified by the fans has done. If a moral lesson is extracted, so be it, but the reason wrestling exists is the same reason people watch it, for entertainment's sake. Of course there are probably people who watch it for other reasons, wrestling would not survive if it wasn't entertaining the bulk of the people tuning in.
Wrestling's Boom Periods and the
Current State It Finds Itself In
Professional wrestling's first boom period in which it received widespread mainstream recognition occured in the early 1950's. During the late 1960's and through the entire 1970's, the popularity of the entertainment sunk to all time lows. The next boom period in which professional wrestling once again became popular and accepted in mainstream American society was in the mid-to-late 1980's. The 1990's have been much like the period 20 years earlier where attendance and revenues dropped alarmingly. In the past two years, the numbers have gone back up, and many people involved in the mat game are expecting wrestling to have another boom period by the turn of the century. Since the popularity of wrestling, like Hollywood movies is consumer driven, promoters, like their producer counterparts in California have to constantly be tinkering with the product to keep the consumer interested. During the boom times, the promoters were on the mark with what the consumer wanted. Since numbers declined between boom periods, it is a safe assumption that the product did not appeal to the largest numbers of people. For a promoter to create a new boom period, they must understand first what the ingredients were in creating the boom periods, while also understanding what is working in the present. The Boom Periods
When the boom periods in professional wrestling, are examined, a big part of the success can be attributed to the medium upon which the wrestling was transmitted. In the early 1950's, television sets were starting to become popular in American homes. Bert Randolph Sugar examined the connection between professional wrestling and the new electronic entertainment medium in a 1985 article titled, "Wrestling Match a Morality Play for Our Time." In the article, Sugar states, "During the 50's when T.V. was in its infancy, it desperately needed programming, and there was no easier programming to come by than wrestling. Wrestling dominated the airwaves, as T.V., like nature abhorred a vacuum and employed wrestling to fill up large pocketss of time around test patterns" (Sugar, 28). These early broadcasts were the first exposure to wrestling from most people, including some current wrestlers. As 53-year-old professional wrestler Rob Elowitch, who goes under the name Robbie Ellis in the ring, stated in a recent interview, "Wrestling was big in my house in the early 50's. We used to watch it every Friday and Saturday night. Like all the other kids in my neighborhood, I was going to be world champion, even though I wasn't very big" (Elowitch, 4/8/96). So for American boys, wrestling became like baseball. What boy of the 1940's didn't dream of playing centerfield for the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox? In the 1950's that dream expanded for many boys to include being wrestlers. With more people being introduced to wrestling on television and wanting to see the action in person, more people began to attend live events, and for over a decade, wrestling flourished.
In the 1960's, wrestling programs were being pulled off of television in favor of shows that were of a higher production value and had appeal to a wider audience. Wrestling was no longer a novelty, and television was no longer one either. The competition for air time on the limited number of channels was fierce, and wrestling lost. Instead of going with the national networks, wrestling promoters were forced to turn to affiliettes, which meant selling the wrestling programs town by town and city by city. When the network affiliettes often wouldn't take the programing, promoters had to turn to independent television stations. Many organizations, like the National Wrestling Alliance, which was nationally broadcast before the network fallout, didn't have the manpower to get their program on in every city in America, and ended up breaking up into several smaller independent organizations. These newer independent organizations would run their programs in only a couple of television markets, usually near each other in proximity. One organization might run their television programing only in the Boston, Providence, and Portland markets. These organizations localized their programming to where they ran live events because those live events became the sole entity for making money. In fact, wrestling promoters often created the programming at no cost to the television station or, as Vince McMahon Jr. did in the early 80's as the second boom period was starting, actually paid stations to run their programing. Writer Ray Tennenbaum examined the situation in a 1985 article, "Sleeper Hold." Tennenbaum says, "The loss of network prime-time television programming sent promoters scampering to barter for local time slots, and presaged the splintering of the NWA: the independent television station got a cost-free hour of programming in which to air its own commercials, while the promoter could advertise his own product" (Tennenbaum, 2). The low period of the 1960's through the early 1980's was also when wrestling began changing its target audience from adults to children. The reason for this was simply survival. Unlike their prime-time television time slots of the 1950's, wrestling was being shown on Saturday and Sunday mornings, when most kids were watching cartoons. Tennenbaum notes, "Finding thier weekend-morning telecasts were competing with cartoon programs, some promoters began designing shows that appealed to children" (Tennenbaum, 3). So out went the straight forward approach to presenting "good vs. evil" and in came the exagurated, cartoon approach to presenting the morality play. Heroes were clearly created and could not be confused for a villain, even by seven-year-olds. Tennebaum talks about the newly created villians, saying, "Television-wrestling's kiddie-show angle also explains why so many of wrestling's villains look and sound more like scary uncles or cartoon bullies -- blustering, deranged, or neurotic -- than barroom brawlers. The delight with which many wrestlers play contempible heels in interviews makes for a great deal of energetic comedy ... a good performer can enliven even an ancient routine: when bad-guy Bobby "The Weasel" Heenan became a manager, he tried to change his epithet to "The Brain"; when arena fans start chanting "Weasel!" at him, Heenan, poised at ringside like a pompous small-time hood, eggs them on with gestures of vexation" (Tennenbaum, 3). But nonetheless, the decline in exposure of professional wrestling on a national level hurt the attendance figures because new potential fans were not being exposed to the sport the way television exposed people in the 1950's.
The next boom period in the mid-1980's can be mainly attributed to another technological creation. Cable television was just beginning to come into its own and more channels were being created. These stations, such as the USA Network, needed cheap programming that appealed to a wide audience, so in came professional wrestling. In the instance of the USA Network, the WWF had four hours of programming over three days, in addition to the occasional special programs. For minor regional promotions, cable was a godsend. Groups that were struggling to get by received a big boost when cable came in to being since, again, it created a new base of fans. But the one group that turned the boom of cable into a cashfall was the WWF. The exposure that cable television gave the WWF transcended into big bucks and opportunities in areas they had never chartered, or had not chartered in years, like network television. William Taffe examined the WWF's resurgance through cable television in an article titled "How Wrestling Got TV In It's Clutches," written in 1985, during the midst of the mid-80's boom. Taffe notes, "In TV terms, McMahon's empire consists of the following: three shows a week on the USA Network, including the fourth- and seventh-highest rated in all of cable; two shows per week on WOR-TV, the New York superstation that can be picked up around the country; a weekly syndicated program on 124 stations; occasional special-event shows on MTV, on pay-per-view cable services and in closed-circuit theaters; a 90-minute show that will substitute for NBC's Saturday Night Live once a month beginning May 11, giving wrestling a network legitimacy; and a Hulk Hogan cartoon series on CBS that will make its debut in September" (Taffe, 38). All of this television exposure meant big money for McMahon and the WWF since the turnout at live shows, and the number of those shows grew dramatically. In a 1991 article, "Wrestling With Success," William Oscar Johnson gave some statistics on the number shows in 1990 and how McMahon filled the arenas even as wrestling's popularity was starting to wane. Johnson asserts, "Even as his television empire was growing fatter with every match, McMahon was also running a complex national network of live events. With a peripatetic troupe of some 60 wrestlers, eight referees and ten publicists, the WWF put on in 1990 alone a total of 663 seperate live events, spread over 191 different cities from Yuma, Ariz., to Lake Charles, La., to Duluth, Minn." (Johnson, 52).
Cable could be partially blamed for the decline in wrestling in the late 1980's and early 1990's. Along with the WWF's countless hours of broadcasting, other federations were flooding the airwaves with wrestling shows, most trying to copy the WWF's formula. Tennenbaum interviewed former wrestler and San Fransisco area promoter Roy Shire about cable's effect on the wrestling boom on the mid-80's. Shire commented that McMahon, "...is doing so great is not because of his manipulation or his expertise of promoting, or anything else, of knowing the business, it's strictly that he's got the television that goes national...He's not that great a promoter. But if you've got T.V. and you go national, you know, and people are seeing those wrestlers, week in and week out, then you come along...you put a guy on T.V. and get people to really like him or hate him, then you put him in a town, and the people that have seen him on T.V. for seven, eight, ten weeks or months or whatever, long enough to either really like him or hate him, you bring him in and the people'll pay their money at the box office office to see him" (Tennenbaum, 9). But the basic-cable market became so oversaturated with wrestling programming that many people got tired of the same old thing and most of the minor federations went out of business or scaled back dramatically. Wrestling promoters also took a step further in the cable industry in 1986, when they began to show big cards of wrestling on pay-per-view. Instead of seeing the most exciting matches on relatively inexpensive cable, fans were now forced to pay upwards of twenty dollars. This new outlet to show their product either helped or hurt the WWF, depending on whom you ask. Johnson gave credit to the WWF, and their parent company Titan Sports, for breaking new ground in the world of cable television, but forecasted the coming loss of interest in high-cost pay-per-view events, analyzing, "In 1989, four of the top eight pay-per-view shows were Titan productions, and last year (1990) Titan had four of the top five. In the decade or so that pay-per-view programming has been available, no single program has ever been sold to a million homes. But Wrestlemania IV (at $19.95 per view) drew 909,000 homes and WM V (at $24.95) drew 915,000, while WM VI (at $29.95) drew 825,000. Lesser WWF extravaganzas over the past three years have averaged over 500,000 (at $19) per show. Recently, however, there have been signs that the frenetic fascination with pro wrestling is fading" (Johnson, 51). By 1988 the number of pay-per-views rose to seven, and in 1991 it was eleven, divided almost equally between the WWF and WCW. The average fan would have to spend close to $250 to see every pay-per-view. And since most fans didn't have the money to see the matches that often helped end and start new storylines, they lost interest. Wrestling promoters are now stirring the ingredients around in hopes of building to the next boom period, and if history repeats itself, they might find their next generation of new fans in the Internet.
Many people on the Internet, which is a growing segment of the wrestling population, in the wrestling business, and in the wrestling magazine business seem to feel that another boom period may be around the corner because attendance and interest has been increasing in the past two years. Elowitch, who wrestles on a couple independent promotion cards every month in the New England area, has seen a resurgance first hand. Elowitch says, "Interest is picking up. There are more cards, which means there is more of an audience" (Elowitch, 4/8/96). In the case of the "big two" promotions of WCW and the WWF, a reason interest may be picking up is that the promoters and cable companies have seemed to reach a level of programming that doesn't oversaturate the market. Instead of having a two-hour taped program called "Prime Time Wrestling" (shown in 1985) on Monday nights on the USA Network, which featured big stars beating unknown wrestlers and very little storyline development, the WWF now has "Monday Night RAW" which is a one-hour, often live program, in which big stars face each other, and the storyline is always changing. WCW has put a show on opposite "Monday Night RAW" on the TNT cable channel called "Monday Nitro." The competition is causing both programs to show pay-per-view caliber matches on basic cable television. Although the days of finishing in the top five are gone, both shows regularly place in the top 20 ratings of cable television. The "big two" are also beginning to move away strictly from wrestling programming, often injecting parodies of other programs or skits in their shows. For example, the competition between WWF and WCW was the focus of a long series of skits by the WWF. The producers of the skits poked fun at the fact the WCW has mainly wrestlers that the WWF has gotten rid of. Instead of calling Hulk Hogan, a former WWF - now WCW wrestler his common nickname The Hulkster, they refered to him as the Huckster. They also refer to Randy "Macho Man" Savage as "Nacho Man". The WWF's most parodied character in the skits was Ted Turner, who owns WCW. They refered to him as Billionaire Ted. The skits also made fun of some of WCW's storylines such as wrestler's losing after they were handcuffed and hit in the head with a women's shoe. These skits were entertaining and popular to the fans who watched both programs, because the humor was bitingly sarcastic. The WWF also recently broadcast a two-hour parody of the Oscars, called "The Slammys" on the USA Network, which actually recieved a "cheers" in the "Cheers & Jeers" section of TV Guide. Wrestlers received awards in categories such as best finishing move, best entrance, and worst dressed. The show earned a 1.9 rating (meaning 1,821,000 homes tuned in) which is high considering the show was broadcast live at 11 p.m. on the east coast. The show was a combination of former wrestlers, or wrestlers close to retirement giving genuine speeches about what wrestling meant to them, while letting the younger wrestlers play their characters. The response from the public on the Internet was generally favorable. As far as pay-per-view broadcasts go, there are more now than ever (25 in 1995), but of the 12 offered by the WWF, eight of them are under $20. The WWF also has a half-hour free show broadcast prior to the pay-per-view in which big matches are shown. And both the WWF and WCW are now regularly running specials on cable television which compare in both big matches and storyline development to the pay-per-view shows. So it seems that the competition between the "big two" is benefitting the average fan since the competition has created a level in basic cable television that the fan can come away satisfied.
But during down times in the business, as 1991 to the present has been, promoters are forced to try manipulating the product in order to draw people back. The portrayal of characters in the ring has also undergone drastic changes since the last boom period. The characters are not just stereotypical "one-gimmick" wrestlers, like a wrestler being hated because he is a Russian. As society's attitudes about people who are different, such as foreigners and minorities begins to change, wrestling promoters have had to develop villianous characters beyond simply playing on the fans' racism or xenophobia, because for many fans, neither exists in their life. Wrestlers are now portrayed as real people, each with a different set of problems and crosses to bear. As David Popenoe stated in "The American Family Crisis" about changing family attitudes, "Segregation and racism has diminished and now we accept more African-Americans, Hispanics, and other minority groups into the mainstream" (17). Foreign wrestlers and minority wrestlers are now not always "bad guys" booed by the fans, as they were throughout the first two boom periods. In fact, many independent promotions, such as Extreme Championship Wrestling, have been getting away from labeling their wrestlers "good guys" and "bad guys" and letting the fans cheer or boo the wrestlers based upon their actions in and around the ring. Even the "big two" are getting away from labeling their wrestlers. The past two WWF world championship pay-per-view matches have been between people that most fans cheer equally. This move from the traditionally labeling of wrestlers as good or evil is so the characters can be seen as individuals, and not a representative of one side on the ongoing battle of good vs. evil. In society, every person is capable of doing good and evil. Now this is true with wrestling characters. This change corresponds with Popenoe's assertion that, "In general, every society should be aware of the unattached male, for he is universally the cause of numerous social ills" (18). Wrestling promoters have taken Popenoe's assertion about society and shaped the face of wrestling around it. Now every wrestler is allowed to be his own person and create his own destiny and the fans are now having to make the decision of whether to cheer or boo a wrestler on their own. This deconstruction of the traditional wrestling roles is reflected in Popenoe's statement about society, which said, "Yet for most of our history this individualism has been balanced, or tempered by a strong belief in the sanctitiy of accepted social organizations..." (17). In the past, wrestlers could always be classified into the two "camps" of good or evil. Wrestlers' characters as a whole have undergone a radical readjustment in the attitude department. Popenoe states, "Today we have a large number of people who are narcisistic or self oriented, and who show concern for social institutions only when they directly affect their well being" (17). The character of the All-American, easy-to-trust wrestler and the evil, Satan worshipping foreigner are gone. The characters are now much more realistic, reflecting the individualistic society Popenoe describes. All wrestlers are like real people in that they have their good points and they have their flaws and they are all individuals, capable of anything.
An important note about the current situation of professional wrestling in America is the resurgence of independent promotions, many which operate with a theme. Again, this is the belief of promoters that when times are slow, tinker with the product. The best example of this is Extreme Championship Wrestling out of Philadelphia, an organization which does not label its wrestlers as good or evil, which has put high-flying technical matches on the same card with the most ultra violent matches available to create a huge cult following. In the technical matches, there is no blood, very little outside of the ring wrestling, and the rules are followed. Immediatly after one of these matches, the fans might be treated to a "barbed wire baseball bat" match in which two wrestlers fight all over the arena, breaking every rule, and in the process beat each other with a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire. Although the two styles of wrestling may seem as opposite as day and night, they are loved by the ECW's fans, who call themselves "hardcore fans." The fans enjoy both types of matches because the high-flyers put on a magnificent entertaining show and the brawlers put on just as interesting a show. Because of the limited number of live shows which create less revenue and the violence of the live shows, the ECW has had a lot of trouble getting on television and promoting matches out of the Philadephia area. The "harcore fans" often insult the wrestling of the "big two" organizations since it doesn't reach the extremes that ECW wrestling will go to, and the promoters and broadcasters have created a "hate the big two" environment. This, coupled with the WWF's attacks on WCW and vice versa have created an environment in pro wrestling where many fans feel that they have to like only one organization and be loyal to it. Conclusion
In order for promoters to create another boom period, they must have some of the ingredients of the first two boom periods. The common trend in the first two periods was a new form of media. The latest form of "media", which wrestling is just beginning to delve into is the Internet. If wrestling promoters can figure out a way to manipulate fans on the Internet, they way they first manipulated with network television and then cable, half the battle is done. The other half consists of presentation, which changes from boom period to boom period. The presentation of the pseudo-sport during the first boom period had the wrestlers as larger than life sports stars. The second boom period's presentation was more along the lines of cartoon superheroes. The latest presentation of the characters as a microchosom of socity where men are individuals, seems to be working, as many in the business will attest to. If promoters can meld a new visual medium with what the fans want to see, the next boom period could be just around the corner.
Where The Business is Headed in the Next Five Years
Professional wrestling, like any other entertainment medium, has had its popularity cycles, called bust and boom periods. The most recent boom period was in the mid-to-late 1980's. The last major bust period was in the 1970's, when wrestling programming was relegated to Saturday mornings. The 1990's have been a middle ground, somewhere between boom and bust. The promoters and bookers are always trying to attract as many fans as possible, so they experiment with the presentation of the product. When they hit upon something that works, like Monday night cable programming, they try to continue to build upon the popularity. Enough of these building blocks equals another boom period. Too many faulty blocks and the promoters are back to square one, trying to create a product from scratch that people want to watch. Wrestling is in the process of rebuilding, but the future in any entertainment industry is hard to forecast. The public can be fickle; whatever is working in the present may not work in the future and vice-versa. Whether or not the public will flock back to wrestling, instead of trickling back, as has been the case in the past few years, is unknown. The industry is healthier now that it has been in many years, yet the future of wrestling lies in two areas: the message and the messenger. The Messenger
A case could be made that the messenger of the professional wrestling message is the promoters or the wrestlers. Although they may create the message, they are not the messenger. The messenger of the message is the medium upon which the message is carried. The messenger of the two boom periods in professional wrestling had one important thing in common in that they were both new visual entertainment mediums. In the early 50's, it was broadcast television. In the 80's, it was cable television. If professional wrestling promoters want to attract more fans, it would seem that they should be looking at the new entertainment mediums available and see what would apply in helping promote the product. Although Virtual Reality is starting to become popularity, it is still years away from being popular enough and used frequently in mainstream America, so for wrestling to jump on the Virtual Reality bandwagon now would be premature. As Virtual Reality illustrates, this new visual entertainment medium that wrestling needs must be a short time away from peaking or leveling off in popularity - and this popularity must transcend age, race, religion, and be available worldwide the way broadcast and cable television both were during the first two boom periods, respectively. The only visual entertainment medium that comes close to achieving this criteria is the Internet.
"C-Net Central," a television show about the Internet recently reported that 11 percent of all Americans have e-mail and Internet capabilities, up from four percent in 1994. This statistic shows that the Internet is not yet a revolution in American culture, but if the numbers continue to grow, and more kinds of people utilitze the technology, it will be an American staple such as the telephone or television. The current increase in users is due to to the expansion on colleges and universities in getting on the Internet and because of the explosion of online services such as Prodigy and America Online. The popularity of the graphically based World Wide Web has grown dramatically in the past year as it is hard to see a television or magazine advertisement without being presented a Web site address where one can learn more about the product. The necessity for a computer to utilize the Internet does limit the numbers and types of people that can use the technology, but it is expanding and becoming easier to go online than ever before. The Internet, which began as a project of the United States military, has been around for over 20 years. It has been available for public usage about half of that time. Wrestling newsgroups, in which fans post messages on bulletin boards and in folders, have been available since the dawn of public access to the Internet. But in the past year, the "big two" organizations, World Championship Wrestling and the World Wrestling Federation have both become involved with online services, while many wrestlers and minor federations have made their presence known by creating web sites or posting messages to the bulletin board newsgroups. Some people, such as wrestler Marc Mero, see the Internet as the logical next step for wrestling. Mero talked about why he went online, saying, "I bought a computer and got a folder on the internet as a way to say thanks" (Mero, 3/7/96). Mero says that most of the people who use the wrestling resources available online are generally less markish and understand the business more than most wrestling fans. Because he is playing to a different, more sophisticated group of fans, Mero tends to ease up on the kayfabe when chatting with people online. "The Internet is for smart people who know what the business is about. I'm not going to ruin the fun for people by giving away angles, but I try an be as honest as I can" (Mero, 3/7/96). This honesty, coupled with the fact most Internet users understand the business could change the face of professional wrestling dramatically. For the markish fans who believe wrestling is completely real, a trip to the Internet is an eye-opening experience. What happens to wrestling if all the fans have their eyes open? One of the new realities that faces wrestling in the information age is that as soon as a television taping is over, the results are posted by fans on the Internet, weeks before they are ever broadcast on television. Although this could potentially turn fans away since they already know who wins, Mero doesn't see posting results as a problem. "It's hard to try and fool people on the Internet because they're so aware of the business. This is good because it make wrestlers want to be creative. People know who wins but they still want to watch to see what happens. I think the Internet is a big part of the future of wrestling and will be a fan base for wrestling" (Mero, 3/7/96).
Bruce Pritchard, a creative consultant with the World Wrestling Federation doesn't quite agree with Mero's assessment about professional wrestling's future lying in the Internet. "Society as a whole is becoming more informed, but the number of people who subscribe to an online service is still low" (Pritchard, 3/27/96). Although that number may be low compared to those that have cable television, the WWF has apparently thought it was large enough to set up an online site on America Online. The site features some inside information not readily available in the WWF's television programming or print publications, seemingly reinforcing the fact that the fans who use the Internet understand how wrestling actually works. But most of the WWF online wrestling world is directed at the mark fan, who is the person the WWF usually plays to. Their online site is like most online services and web sites, in that it is still merely "eye candy" used to promote a product. Technology does not yet exist for wrestling to be seen live on the Internet, so the WWF's current task is to find other ways to promote the product without showing the product itself. They use sound clips, downloadable photos, trivia contests, and online chats with wrestlers to promote the product at the moment. Pritchard said one of the other reasons the WWF went online was to battle rumors and incorrect inside information that often found its way into newsletters (called "sheets" in the business) and telephone hotlines. "For a long time, we were content with just sitting back because 99 percent of the time what they printed in the sheets or said on the hotlines was incorrect. We see the computer as an opportunity to put our spin on things. Rather than ignore something or wait, we get our story out first. The people who do the hotlines and newsletters don't base anything on the fact. They are dealing in dirt. We've decided to tell people the truth because we're not hiding anything anymore" (Pritchard, 3/27/96). As for wrestling's ultimate future on the Internet, Pritchard is a bit conservative upon how useful the Internet may actually be. "The Internet isn't having much of an effect on wrestling now. I think the Internet and computers as a whole could change the face of a lot once they become cheaper and simpler to use" (Pritchard, 3/27/96).
As reality programming and daytime talk shows become more popular in mainstream society, professional wrestling has been taking a cue from both genres of programming, with promoters and bookers trying to make the angles and characters seem less cartoonish and somewhat more dysfunctional, or at least more tawdry. A perfect case is the WWF's latest angle to set up a pay-per-view championship match. The angle has the champion, Shawn Michaels, being accused of propostitioning another wrestler's (Davey Boy Smith) wife, Diana, for sexual favors. A few years ago in the era of the "family entertainment" WWF, a television programming produced by the WWF would not have started with a wrestler's wife saying, "When you wanted to sleep with me Shawn Michaels, you made the biggest mistake of your life." Sex has started to find its way into wrestling in a major way in the past year. Taking the WWF, for example, this angle with Smith and Michaels is just a continuation of where they've been going with their storylines. The character of Goldust is centered around sexual innuendo, while a female manager named Sunny helps her wrestlers win matches by flashing their opponents. Most announcers cleverly, and routinely call this, "showing her assets". David Rosenbaum, a writer for the kayfabe magazine Pro Wrestling Illustrated wrote a non-kayfabe piece about where he thought the future of pro wrestling is headed. He believes wrestling is going to be motivated by the same thing that motivates the reality programming and daytime talk shows. "Shock sells. Unfortuately, when on shock barrier is broken down, another has to be set up so it can be broken down. We're seeing that in wrestling, where wrestlers are doing more and more outrageous things to gain the attention of promoters. Ten years ago, Adrian Adonis was enough. Now we have Dustin Rhodes as Goldust" (Rosenbaum, 20). Adrian Adonis was the gay character during the WWF's boom period of the mid-80's. Adonis sniffed flowers, wore dresses, and although did not act ambiguously gay, did not bring the act to the offensive levels that many feel
Goldust is. Recent matches of Goldust have included him fondling opponents rear-ends, kissing opponents, and his interviews are drenched with sexual innuendo. Apparently we are in the dawn of a new era in the WWF. It's easy to imagine what the memo WWF employees received might have said: starting in 1996, sex sells.
With wrestler's characters becoming more adult, the actual wrestling inside the ring will have to follow. An example of where this is happening is Extreme Championship Wrestling, which run the most adult-orientated angles and feature the most violent matches anywhere. This switch to violence bothers some, such as the Senior Editor of Pro Wrestling Illustrated, Bill Apter. Apter has always been a purist who enjoyed technical mat wrestling and has problems with the presentation of ECW's product. Apter comments, "Extreme Championship Wrestling is getting more violent by the day. I see our sport as a whole getting bloodier and more violent just so promoters can appease viewers who live for blood and gore. In the case of ECW, it seems like promoters and wrestlers just try to make each show more outrageous than the last one. How much more extreme can it get?" (Apter, 19). Rosenbaum isn't as distraught about ECW as Apter, seeing it just as part of the "shock sells" theory that he feels promoters, bookers, and wrestlers are employing as of late. "What's going on in ECW these days isn't about violence, it's about shock, pushing the envelope" (Rosenbaum, 20). The style of wrestling and storylines ECW has been featuring since it's Summer of 1994 inception (prior to that, it was part of the National Wrestling Alliance) is not losing any popularity. The fact that both the WWF and WCW are beginning to create more adult storylines and characters, along with the fact that both groups have signed some ECW talent illustrates that promoters are staking the future on the type of wrestling ECW has been presenting, albeit in a more acceptable atmosphere. While ECW will feature wrestlers using fire and broken glass to hurt each other, the WWF will not go that far just yet. A recent WWF pay-per-view featured a wrestler grab a wooden leg from a retired wrestler sitting at ringside so he could beat his opponent with it. Perhaps it is somewhat lowbrow, but it is definatly not cartoon-like. And this is where the future of the "big two" can be expected to go. The programming will be less cartoon-like, but it won't be high art. It will be the type of escapism entertainment "Baywatch" is, rather than "Bugs Bunny."
While the technology doesn't even exist yet for wrestling matches to be broadcast live over the Internet, it seems like a visual entertainment medium with the possiblities of the Internet does not come along often and the wrestling federations should do their best to enter this new world. If the bulk of wrestling fans become knowledgable about the business, the promoters will just have to keep creating more and more realistic storylines. They also need to realize that knowledgable fans does not spell the end of the professional wrestling industry. While it is hard to believe that one wrestler would go after another's wife, it's more believable than a wrestler wanting to beat another wrestler because he stole his pet dog. Professional wrestling is no longer being marketed to 12 year old kids. It's being marketed to those people who were kids during the first boom period, the group that's now in the 18-25 year old age group. This seems like a good idea, because they are already interested, or most likely used to be. Instead of pushing hard to get new fans, wrestling is going for people who used to be fans but are now adults by presenting a product that says, "We've grown up too." The target audience is just the same audience wrestling has had for a while. As those people change, wrestling will have to also. All things considered, the future of pro wrestling looks bright.
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Courtesy: Josh Shea (JoshShea@aol.com)