Grapple This: Exclusive Rights on a Third Golden Age of Wrestling - The Paradox of Sports Entertainment | Smark Out Moment
Since making my return in covering the Sport of Kings after a five year hiatus, I have learned that everything that used to be true about professional wrestling is not as it once was—or, at the very least, as I recall from my many recollections from youth. I say this having spent nearly thirty years of my life covering the sport from a journalistic perspective. I did so as a means of appeasing that inner-child within that longs to once more run up the street knocking on all the doors of neighborhood friends as I went. It was a specific knock fueled by a combination of testosterone, caffeine, and sugary treats—the latter of which having been consumed while watching NWA on TBS, or that of the replay shows of what took place throughout the week within the WWF, Georgia Championship Wrestling, WCCW, or AWA.

Thump, thump, thump!

"Get the damn door, it's Trent … And be home by midnight!"

Every parent within the neighborhood knew the knock, and knew it well. It hardly took them by surprise given the weekly repetition of which. They, in turn, knew that their sons would return home with battlescars that resulted from many re-creations of the matches over in the neighbor's yard where the flickering streetlights would act as our spotlight as we made our grand entrances before such imagined fans cheering us on.

best wrestling moments Jimmy Superfly Snuka steel cage

Each bloody nose or scraped knee was a symbol of our shared love of everything that professional wrestling represented. Each open wound would act as a badge of honor that we proudly displayed to any and all courageous enough to spy upon them. Yes, with a glint in our eyes and a passion in our hearts, we were gods among men reigning down vicious elbow drops, one after another in succession, upon those foolish enough to enter the squared circle loosely predefined by a series of cherry trees and flower beds, while the rural road substituted as the entrance ramp. It was my attempt in recapturing such moments that I have taken to writing about the sport over the years. Ultimately, it remains my effort to let the seven-year-old me take flight once more from high atop the cage ala Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka...if, for but one more fleeting moment in time.

So in understanding my passion, I can only assume that you can appreciate my concerns when tuning in to the modern day product and the inconsistencies that goes into it from both the physical (in-ring) side, and the creative side of the business. It is then with a heavy heart that I opine. Gone are the days of the smoke-filled VFW halls packed by enraged fans adamantly calling for the head of a regional heel as they each took turns chucking beer, popcorn, or rocks toward the ring. Ironically, the very same people crying out for the blood of a particular wrestler on a Friday or Saturday night would be the same individuals that led the Bible studies on Sunday down at the local church. Although I could not appreciate the obvious hypocrisy then in my formative years as I sat there in that wooden-backed chair, hotdog in one hand and an iced Coke in the other while taking in the spectacle of it all, as I reflect back now, I chuckle in recalling the preacher suggesting with a wink and a smile shifting the wad of tobacco to the side of his lip having just smacked the heel upside the head with his spit cup all good and proper like -- "Jacob wrestled the angel in order to better understand God."

There is some historical truth to this; one that both professional wrestling and sports entertainment alike continues to play off of. It is the first of the seven central themes in writing taking place -- a person's struggle with either God or that of their given fate. And it is such a continuing theme that goes to the core of the individual as it elicits a visceral reaction. From the honed nuances of a heel rearing back his hand threatening an unruly child. or that of woman within the audience, to lengthy title reigns that made baby faces seem greater by comparison in the eyes of fans than any historical leaders that has came or went in this life. Alas, these days seem to be all but lost to my memories.

wrestling legend Dick Murdoch with championship
Having grown up during the territorial days of the sport, I was privy to epic baby faces like Chief Jay Strongbow, Bruiser Brody, Peter Maivia, Dusty Rhodes, Andre the Giant, Bruno Sammartino, and even greater heels such as Stan Hansen, Freddie Blassie, Ric Flair, Harley Race, The Sheik, Nick Bockwinkel, 'Superstar' Billy Graham and the like. The latter of which, both Hulk Hogan and 'Big Poppa Pump' Scott Steiner equally paid homage to with their characters in World Championship Wrestling in the 1990s by utilizing the full goatee while dyeing the mustache blond gimmick that Graham made popular in the Mid-Atlantic region back in 1985. But these were different times, a different phase within the Second Golden Age of professional wrestling.

The crowds were typically electric in their reactions while the matches were longer, and more drawn out in nature, allowing for a great ebb and flow that one scarcely gets in the modern era of a globalized product. Gone, too, are the days of great in-ring psychology and the sixty minute matches where a leg lock, as opposed to a rebound slam off the ropes, would do an opponent in having beaten on their limb for upward forty-five minutes. The wrestling was methodical and stiff while the flasks of whiskey fans snuck in were even stiffer. But this was wrestling in the south, and that was how we liked it -- big, bloody, and full up with bourbon.

It is important to note that during this period it was commonplace for heels to camp out in the locker rooms for hours on end after a given show due to mobs of fans waiting just beyond the entrance door with bricks, knives, or other such weaponry eagerly anticipating such a moment where they could exact their revenge. As Michael 'PS' Hayes once shared -- in the thick of the Fabulous Freebirds heated rivalry with The Junkyard Dog in Mid-South Wrestling, fans in Louisiana became so wrapped up in the dispute that the police once apprehended a man in the audience with a Saturday night special in his hand. In the chamber of the gun was a bullet with the word "Freebirds" engraved on it.

This was an era where fans took the matches seriously, and were not above stabbing a heel. Freddie Blassie loved it in reminiscing on the period because this was the very barometer used to gauge the success of one's heel persona. He remarked that if you couldn't walk down the street without being accosted then you were doing your job, and doing it correctly.

Another such incident from the era lends perspective upon the dangers of buying into kayfabe as the Greenville News in South Carolina reported at the time --

On May 24, 1976, an angry fan at ringside in the Greenville Memorial Auditorium stabbed wrestler Ole Anderson as he left the ring. Wrestlers like Ole Anderson were adept at raising the ire of wrestling fans, but Ole Anderson had turned it into an art form. Rarely, however, did that type of heat result in an actual assault by one of those fans. The incident illustrated how quickly things can get out of hand in the heat of a pro-wrestling event.

newspaper reports Ole Anderson stabbing
Ole and partner Gene Anderson were on their way back to their dressing room following an unsuccessful attempt to regain the NWA world tag team titles from Tim Woods and Dino Bravo, when Oscar Ramsey (reported to be either 79 or 82 years old in various news reports), a regular at the Greenville matches, stabbed Ole in the chest and arm with a hawkbill knife.

WWE superstar Bob Backlund in TNA
Anderson was taken to a local hospital and underwent a reported four hour surgery to repair tendons in his arm that were severed in the attack. Dozens of stitches were required to close wounds on his chest and arm.

Such a legitimate fear for one's life and/or personal safety throughout this period would not be tested again for well over a decade until fans were privy to a match that they had previously dreamed about. Although the climate surrounding the situation lacked the same visceral reaction toward the match as was previously and readily garnered back in the 70's and 80's, the result were no less the same. At ECW's Hardcore Heaven in August of 1994, Terry Funk and Cactus Jack faced off in the main event in what would otherwise be known as the chair incident leaving both wrestlers and an assortment of other staff fleeing for their lives as chairs reigned down upon the ringside area. This, mind you, was after Terry Funk made the egregious error in requesting that a fan toss him a chair so that he could further pummel his opponent.

It is within this vein that both a distinction is made between a regional and a global product, coupled with the glass ceiling that has historically kept wrestling promotions other than the WWE taking a bad bump off of a glass ceiling that they could not circumnavigate. Specifically, such organizations within the sport like the AWA, WCCW, Georgia Championship Wrestling, UWF, Jim Crockett Productions, WCW, and Mid-South, that had they stayed within their given territories and not attempted to expand so quickly and obviously beyond their scope, as it has been said many times with both longing and regret, they would still be around today. But they each, in turn, wanted to grow. The advancement in production value demanded it, as too did the fans in their want for more theatrics and nuance lending further credibility to the sport and believability to the given storylines playing into the mythos that wrestling served a greater purpose than entertainment for entertainment sake, but also as a cultural, if not a historically shared experience among its fans.

The very issues that stemmed from which, and one that continues even today, roughly twenty-five years later, is that there is only one successful business model (the WWE's) while being surrounded by the inkling of ideas toward more aggressive tactics that would fare any up-and-coming promotion far better if and when they made the conscious choice in changing the very paradigm of how they tackle branding themselves, and then in how they define success through such a business model within the Sport of Kings. It was perhaps the thoughts of TNA's own announcer Jeremy Borash in sharing the philosophy of the company that paints into specific relief why Impact Wrestling continues to flounder.

"We have always been a company that has evolved and advanced with baby steps ..."

old school wrestling pictures Hulk Hogan young Andre the Giant
Where this is true, it also reveals the lack of foresight toward upward mobility. Impact Wrestling cannot be to wrestling fans that which the WWE is. That particular niche has been taken and cemented within the annal of wrestling lore. This was done, in large part, to cavalier moves by both Vincent Kennedy McMahon, his family, and the stars at the time willing to venture into unknown territory in order to grow beyond such a ceiling adamantly suggesting -- You can only grow so far. The line is here. You can come up to it, but go no further.

In spite of budgetary restraints, something that currently has TNA forcing it's wrestlers to renegotiate their given contracts for less pay in order to meet said fiscal hindrances, the skies the limit for them, Dragon Gate, AAA, ROH, or even Family Wrestling Entertainment if and when they give up on following the WWE handbook. Specifically, TNA greatly benefited from it's long anticipated UK tour. Where plans are currently in development for a tour in Paris with stopovers in Australia, possibly India, and other European markets, this is not enough. TNA might want to consider utilizing these untapped resources and markets greater than what they currently are where such fans favor TNA's product over that of the WWE by an overwhelming margin. A potential move abroad might be the very thing that sends TNA into the stratosphere that only the WWE has known in the business. Such a consideration is being mulled over by the California based AAA Wrestling as they entertain such thoughts of moving the company to Australia.

old school WWF George the Animal Steele eats turnbuckle
But this too isn't enough. As unpopular as this might be, especially to those within the business, these fledgeling promotions need to treat their athletes as independent contractors on a per job basis. Where there is great speculation as to the reason(s) that WCW went under, one of the contributing factors of having 60 guys fly in for a pay-per-view show when only 40 of which were used, is a waste of money. This, naturally, was on top of the million dollars lost monthly on the contracts of performers getting paid kicking back at home rather than working house shows, television tapings, or the like.

Of course, this particular type of loose booking (booking a show just hours before it goes live) is one of several ways to tank a major promotion if and when it is left in the hands of such individuals that do not know the sport, or care little about it due, in large part, to the internal politics as WCW and even its predecessor the NWA was known for. But therein lies a whole nother can of worms leading into the plausible argument toward too many cooks in the kitchen which WCW had far too many of. This, perhaps, has been one of McMahon's saving graces whereas the buck always stopped with him and no one but him.

professional wrestler Vince Russo creative booker
Gone are the days of the multiyear contracts if and when the sport remains under the umbrella of scripted entertainment and wishes to stay culturally relevant. Due to 24/7 access via the internet, YouTube, and now the WWE network, like it or not, the weight that the titles once carried through extended runs are forever lost as we know it. The titles serve no more purpose in the modern eras as Vince Russo suggested through one of his shoot interviews—"They are nothing more than plot devices to be tossed around if and when it serves a given story arc."

Wrestling, then, should be treated in the same regard as most major sports—reward your two or three franchise players with larger contracts and fringe benefits while offering everyone else shorter contracts with a few perks thrown in on the side. At the very least, each performer should be allotted a three month contract with an extension clause in place allowing for further development if and when it meets the criteria and climate of a given storyline. And as the sport moves forward, it will eventually have to address offering health and dental insurance with a 401k retirement plan if it is to be treated as a corporate ran company rather than a fly by night promotion.

This then, frees up the creative side to draw upon such tried and truth methods done back in the AWA, NWA, and NWA TNA where guys from the indies or lesser promotions can potentially get rotated in and out on a per month basis offering both freshness and diversity to the product thus eliminating a Khali factor (Khali continually gets multiyear contracts and yet plays no vital role for the WWE other than spot appearances or thirty second snap-ins on live shows offering some type of comedic effect). No longer will there be such Punk or Styles type of situations whereas they hit that wall creatively as they begin to age themselves out of the sport, nor will there be such a rush for new and seasoned talent to take the spots of injured or otherwise unusable performers still being paid for contributing nothing to the overall product.

But allow me to digress back to the untapped resources for a moment. India recently had a ratings spike for a wrestling event that doubled that of any single Raw or Impact Wrestling show within the past decade. Yes, Ring Ka King only lasted a year (26 tapings specifically). This was a decision made by the India based television network The Colors that chose MMA style fighting over professional wrestling at the time as being the next big thing and went with it. Obviously they pissed the bed with that decision back in April of 2011 due wholly to the fact that both MMA and UFC respectively, are still trying to iron out the same wrinkles as any of the smaller, perhaps lesser known wrestling promotions. Now, however, for a target audience of a billion people that love action based sports, this is a built in market ripe with potential and only requiring a fraction of the cost to build a product from the ground up given how poor the country is.

old timey wrassler mustache
But even this is not enough. TNA has recently touched upon something that needs to be cultivated further, if not by them, then by Dragon Gate, ROH, or the like ... utilize the house shows. Back in the late 70's going into the early 80's, the bulk of the money for a given promotion came from the gate sales while the purpose of the pay-per-views (closed circuit television at the time) were only there to advance given storylines built up through the televised shows. So it wasn't uncommon for a major title to be dropped at one of these shows that intrinsically made wanting to be at a particular house show an investment between fans and a given promotion in a potential shared experience with all those that might happen to see it live. It drew the fans in while creating the atmosphere of a potential spectacle. Further, it, through the press, facilitated a greater intent of being as culturally relevant as any other sporting event at the time -- kayfabe or not.

Specific strategies like these, when implemented not necessarily on a pass/fail basis, but as a product testing process, will, in theory, stabilize the parity of the market that would otherwise be viewed through such a lens of the WWE having a monopoly over. No one product is going to have such complete or total power. The very nature of the business in organically playing off of the whims of their audience while staying true to the times defies any and all from doing so. The WWE's claim to fame has not been in buying up the remains of failing regional promotions around them while casting off the financial liabilities of disenchanted former employees. No, it is my contention that it was through a willingness to push the envelop whenever and however that it could to keep itself current inspite of such tendencies to fall back into what they know -- cookie cutter characters and predictable cards -- that facilitated a longevity, and even a greater resiliency than that of its many counterparts.

Such a moment of complacency could, however, take place in the WWE given its lack of such competition that would lend a greater impetus to keep moving forward. Where this is true, what has the WWE done? They have 'stepped it up a notch' to quote John Cena by reinvesting in such areas of the company that were previously weak -- specifically talent development. Having poured countless monies into the developmental center there in Florida, while bringing in young and fresh talent to groom and to season in and out of the ring, the WWE has created not only more content for the network, but its own competition vying for the the title of better wrestling promotion. And if that were not enough, through happenstance -- where most moments of genius born themselves out of which -- the WWE has all but ushered in a third Golden Age of Wrestling that will extend well into 2030's.

Where the market was previous stiff in building a brand to compete previously, it seems to be all but undoable given the calculated risks and machiavellian maneuvers leading into the here and now. That is unless you change the very paradigm in which you approach the business. The gauntlet has been thrown down. And the company spokesman (John Cena) drove it home through his thoughts. Now is the time for the Jeff Jarretts, the Jim Cornettes, the Paul Heymans, and or the yet to be discovered pioneers to answer the challenge with conviction of heart in what they enjoy, and the courage to look outside the box that will thrive.

old masked Mexican wrestlers
The winds are changing as we have witnessed throughout this bitter winter. A demographic shift here in America is about to take place over the next ten year period that will revolutionize the nature of the sport once again as an influx of Latinos go from being a minority to a majority -- 30% increase in five years to a 60% increase through ten years. What this entails is that a Telemundo or Fox Deportes can corner the market leaving the WWE all but gasping for air as it has done previously due to steroid scandals, lengthy legal battles in and out of the courts, premature deaths of its stars that inevitably ended Linda McMahon's run for political office (Chris Candido), and the infamous Monday Night Wars.

So in the land of giants, it is he with a different perspective that will be king. The time is ripe for one to come of age and take the mantle of power, thus returning peace, prosperity, and parity back to the lands that have been savaged by a mighty overlord, the WWE. Whom will it be ... Jeff Jarrett, Cornette, Ted Debiase, or Jimmy Hart? All of whom have tried and failed previously with their own promotions. Booker T, Harley Race, or some great unknown? Only time will tell, but in this regard, time is more of an enemy than a friend. The business is ever evolving by the day. Its a young man's game as it always has been. Where Bill Gates once feared the kids in their garages being the ones to put him out of business, the same can be said in the here and now by someone that both loves the sport and is capable of honing the given technology at the time in disseminating their product in real time with real feedback to and from generational fans. Welcome to the third Golden Age of Wrestling where the steps that we take will change the nature of the business for the next fifty years.

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