Oliver Lee Bateman remembers what pro wrestling used to be, as he traces its downfall.
I’m not exactly sure when pro wrestling lost me, but it did. If forced to choose, two moments spring to mind. The first occurred in 2001, when William Regal bent down and kissed Vince McMahon’s bare ass on WWE Raw. The second came at the conclusion of a convoluted storyline where strongman Mark Henry, who had allegedly impregnated 80-year-old Mae Young, looked on with horror as Young gave birth to a plastic hand.
Yeah, this was pretty terrible. But McMahon’s WWE, with its Gobbledygookers and wrestling hunchbacks, had never been any good. Even the in-ring product, supposedly revitalized through conspicuous borrowings from the ECW’s hardcore style during the “Monday Night Wars” against WCW, often amounted to little more than a series of blown spots culminating in “Dusty finishes”—disqualification endings that offered no sense of closure to the fans, a preferred booking strategy of Dusty “the American Dream” Rhodes.
Not that it mattered, of course. Vince McMahon didn’t promote legitimate competitions; he staged lurid spectacles. He had said as much during the late 1980s and early 1990s, when his own business had been wracked with scandal, emphasizing that what he provided to viewers was nothing more than “sports entertainment.” By the time that Chris Heath of Rolling Stone wrote that McMahon’s storyline feud with “Attitude Era” hero Steve Austin “marked another sad step into the gutter,” the WWE’s brand of professional wrestling bore little resemblance to the curious pseudo-sport of the late 1970s and early 1980s out of which it had emerged.
Did it have to be this way? Almost assuredly, when one considers the rise of the Internet and the “smark” (i.e., smartened-up to the secrets of the business) community of fans that developed there. The world was slowly being globalized, “flattened” in the words of neoliberal maven Thomas Friedman, and there was nowhere left for a business that operated under its carny-like “kayfabe” code to hide. But few major players associated with professional wrestling realized this at the time, and it is the outright obliviousness of three highly influential transitional figures—“Cowboy” Bill Watts, Ole Anderson, and Verne Gagne—that has always fascinated me.
Gagne’s American Wrestling Association, like McMahon’s WWF, operated independently of the National Wrestling Alliance that served as the loose umbrella under which most of the regional federations were organized. Like Gagne himself—a great amateur and professional wrestler of the 1960s, and holder of his federation’s version of the world title for a staggering 4,677 days spread over ten separate reigns—the AWA was aging gracefully. Based in Minnesota, the AWA emphasized athleticism and “legitimate” wrestling, although Gagne had also developed several colorful new grapplers like Jesse “The Body” Ventura and “Hulk” Hogan.
But Gagne remained faithful to his veteran core long after their stale dates had passed, booking fiftysomething stalwarts like Dick “The Bruiser” and Larry “the Axe” Hennig to the detriment of Hogan, Ventura, and the dozens of other young wrestlers he lost to Vince McMahon’s periodic talent raids. Gagne had always gone it alone, and for all of his merits—an insistence on high-quality television production values and a stubborn refusal to give his world strap to a lumbering behemoth like Hogan—he was ill-prepared to fend off McMahon’s sales and marketing onslaught. His attempt at cross-promotion, the so-called “Pro Wrestling USA” venture, brought together a host of promoters, including Georgia Championship Wrestling’s Ole Anderson and Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling’s Jim Crockett, but collapsed due to petty-yet-irreconcilable differences among the principals.
Afterwards, the decline of Gagne’s federation proved a slow but inexorable process. More fine matches followed (the feud between Curt Hennig and Nick Bockwinkel that culminated at SuperClash 2 is among the best of the 80s) but gradually most of his top stars departed for greener pastures. What I remember most vividly was the “Team Challenge Series” of 1989 that ran on ESPN, where the matches were taped in a TV studio without an audience. By then almost no one of note was left in the federation, and these lonely bouts between also-rans like Brad Rheingans and “Trooper” Del Wilkes (later the Patriot of WWF fame) took on a sad, wistful quality.
Gagne’s story ended there: he was losing money on other business ventures and the AWA wasn’t drawing crowds, so he closed the doors and never promoted another match. Bill Watts and Ole Anderson, though, survived long enough to participate in professional wrestling’s curious transformation into its present-day form, with all of the attendant ass-kissings and storyline stillbirths. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, they tried, albeit in rather misguided ways, to chart a different future for the sport.
Like Gagne, Watts and Anderson had legitimate athletic backgrounds. Watts played football for Bud Wilkinson at Oklahoma, and Anderson played at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. Neither saw much of a future in that sport—Watts would later turn down a $7,000 contract offer from the Minnesota Vikings—and, like many frustrated jocks of their era, both drifted into the shadowy world of pro wrestling.
Watts, owing to his immense size and villainous “Cowboy” gimmick, became a big box office draw during the 60s, headlining matches with the likes of Bruno Sammartino earning upwards of $50,000 a year. Ole Anderson, wrestling under his real name of Al Rogowski, cut his teeth in Gagne’s AWA in the late 60s before beginning to tag with his storyline brothers Gene and Lars Anderson as part of the Minnesota Wrecking Crew.
Watts and Anderson migrated south as their careers progressed, winding up as major behind-the-scenes figures in the Oklahoma and Georgia territories, respectively. Watts worked as the booker for Leroy McGuirk’s Championship Wrestling before eventually forming his own Mid-South Wrestling promotion. Anderson made himself indispensable to Georgia Championship Wrestling—first as a tireless heel worker who, along with Gene, achieved a string of sellouts during feuds with local good guy teams like Mr.Wrestling I and Mr. Wrestling II and the Briscos, and later as a booker who helped GCW achieve impressive ratings on Ted Turner’s WTBS superstation.
Although a diehard Republican, Watts attracted huge crowds to his Mid-South Wrestling events by pushing African-American wrestlers. While Vince McMahon and Jim Crockett continued to depict wrestlers such as Thunderbolt Patterson and Koko B. Ware as silly caricatures, Watts relied on headliners like Ernie “Big Cat” Ladd and Sylvester “Junkyard Dog” Ritter to win over African-American audiences in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana.
Anderson, meanwhile, was overseeing GCW’s expansion into Ohio and Michigan. With tremendous exposure due to its programming on WTBS, GCW seemed like it might succeed where even Gagne’s AWA hadn’t: becoming a truly nationwide promotion. Anderson and his partners had forced out GCW majority partner Jim Barnett, who fancied himself the “godfather of pro wrestling,” and now stood poised to finish the building project Barnett had haphazardly started several years before.
It never came to pass. Several months later, Vince McMahon, tipped off by a bitter Barnett and working in secret, negotiated to purchase Jack and Jerry Brisco’s ownership shares in GCW. He assumed GCW’s time slot on WTBS—although not for very long, owing to problems that arose between McMahon and Turner as well as the viewers’ general disdain for McMahon’s one-sided squash matches and companywide ban on “blading”—and within months the promotion had ceased to exist. Ole Anderson left Georgia and went to work for Jim Crockett Promotions in Charlotte, where he became a top draw as one of the heel partners of his new storyline brother Arn Anderson.
Watts, reacting to Vince McMahon’s nationwide mobilization and building on a foundation established by wrestlers like Ritter, “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan, and Michael Hayes, attempted to increase Mid-South Wrestling’s geographic reach. He rebranded MSW as the Universal Wrestling Federation, and began programming against both McMahon’s WWF and the slowly-expanding MACW (later the WCW) operated by Jim Crockett Promotions.
Despite the fact that he ran consistently smarter storylines than either WWF or Crockett Promotions, Watts’ UWF met with only limited success. A dip in oil production led to a severe recession in Oklahoma and Louisiana, causing attendance at the UWF’s house shows to dwindle. Moments that prefigured the WWF’s “attitude” era—a vicious feud between “Gentleman”Chris Adams and “Iceman” King Parsons, the development of “futuristic” superstars like Sting and “badasses” like Eddie “Hot Stuff” Gilbert and Jake Roberts, and an especially memorable incident where Arab villain Skandor Akbar “blinded” Jim Duggan by shooting a fireball at his face—thus passed unnoticed by most wrestling fans. Faced with the possibility of bankruptcy, Watts sold his interest in UWF to Jim Crockett and went into semi-retirement.
Watts and Anderson would each get one last serious opportunity to chart the future of pro wrestling. Anderson headed the WCW’s booking committee from 1990 to 1991, but the touch he had displayed with GCW was gone. As head of GCW, Anderson had favored clean finishes, competent technical wrestling, and didn’t shy away from “blade jobs”—a nod to the old wrestling notion that “programs have to go red before they go green.” His first stint atop WCW bore little fruit, save perhaps the recruitment of the highly-skilled, 400-pound monster heel Big Van Vader (whom he underutilized), and is today best remembered for the ludicrous “Black Scorpion” storyline where Anderson and various other wrestlers took turns wearing an all-black costume, performing magic tricks, and tormenting fan favorite Sting.
The Black Scorpion, a reluctant nod to the cartoonish antics that were taking place in the WWF at the time, wasn’t what finished Anderson as booker, though. No, according to his fascinating autobiography Inside Out, Anderson–brusque and unpleasant under the best of circumstances–was replaced because he could no longer work harmoniously with stars like Ric Flair and Dusty Rhodes, who were always looking to put themselves over at the expense of the company. It made perfect sense, then, for WCW to move Anderson to a lesser administrative position and hire Watts–an even louder and more opinionated individual—to serve as its head booker and executive vice president.
Given a platform to finish what he had started with UWF, Watts acted in ways that somehow managed to be both visionary as well as completely misguided. He banned top-rope moves—both to enhance the “legitimacy” of the sport, and to excite the fans when the rule was broken, he explained on the WWE-produced documentary The Rise and Fall of the WCW—and made Ron Simmons, a former Florida State football standout, the first African-American world heavyweight champion. He also presided over a period of excellent in-ring action, including some of the best matches of former WWF star Rick Rude’s career.
However, his decisions failed to grow the WCW’s business. Partly this was due to the fact that the wrestling on display, however “legitimate” by old school standards, was accompanied by unmemorable storylines. Furthermore, Watts’ understandable but misguided attempt to push his inexperienced son Erik, a former University of Louisville quarterback, also backfired. Finally, it seems that Watts, who was still a huge, intimidating man even in his 50s, rubbed everyone the wrong way. Shortly after journalist Mark Madden drew Turner Broadcasting executive Hank Aaron’s attention to some vague pro-segregation comments that Watts had made in a wrestling magazine prior to assuming his position at WCW, he resigned.
Watts’ duties as head booker were again assumed by Ole Anderson, who worked in conjunction with new WCW president Eric Bischoff. His second stint in that position was brief and unremarkable, concluding with his termination by Bischoff after a dust-up involving Anderson’s son Brian, who had been released from his developmental deal with WCW’s Power Plant wrestling school. Anderson faded into the background after that, emerging only to promote his book Inside Out and criticize Bischoff, Ric Flair, Hulk Hogan, and the state of wrestling generally. Since developing multiple sclerosis in 2007, he has made few public appearances and is reputed to be in very poor health.
Watts gave pro wrestling one final go, working as a booker with WWF on a three-month contract. His time there was marked by the same internecine disputes that had characterized his previous tenure with WCW, and he accomplished little of note. His son Erik, who had followed him to the WWF, was saddled with one of the most ludicrous gimmicks in the history of that promotion, serving as “Troy” alongside Chad Fortune’s “Travis” in the Tekno Team 2000, a tag team billed as being at “the cutting edge of cyberculture.”
Would pro wrestling be different today if Gagne, Anderson, or Watts had succeeded? The historian E.H. Carr remarked that counterfactual history is a parlor game played by losers, but here it’s impossible to even conceive of an alternate-world scenario whereby any of these three could have beaten McMahon. I almost typed “could have beaten McMahon at his own game,” but that’s the thing: after the first Wrestlemania, McMahon was playing a completely different game.
The decentralized NWA cartel that he had crushed was composed of old-timers and old-schoolers who wanted the fans to believe that their champion could out-wrestle anybody. McMahon didn’t care about that. He wanted to draw high TV ratings for his shows while using those shows as vehicles for selling t-shirts and boosting pay-per-view buyrates; everything else was incidental. And, in the final analysis, that’s what he has created: a company that makes money for him, albeit one that’s steadily losing ground among the white male 18-to-34 demographic to Dana White’s UFC. Box office receipts and overall TV ratings for pro wrestling are much lower than in the 1960s and 1970s, but it hardly matters. The future is now, and it is one where wrestling, though still profitable due to the bargain-basement salaries paid to uninsured “independent contractors” who perform the matches, remains as irrelevant as ever.
Bill Watts, a born-again Christian, is retired and living in Bixby, Oklahoma. He returned to the WWE briefly in 2009, to be inducted into its Hall of Fame alongside the likes of Drew Carey and Pete Rose. His autobiography The Cowboy and the Cross isn’t a scintillating tell-all like Anderson’s Inside Out; rather, it’s a cross between a hagiography of its author—no one ever wrestled better or booked smarter than Bill Watts, at least as far as Bill Watts is concerned—and a detailed description of his “come-to-Jesus” moment. He doesn’t participate in “worked tweet” feuds like his protégé, WWE announcer Jim Ross, and he doesn’t have much that’s positive to say about the business. Like Gagne and Anderson, he’s just another old man with nothing left to do. And that’s too bad.
—Photo Pro Wrestling Revolution/Flickr