The year was 1905. In New York City, at Madison Square Garden, George Hackenschmidt defeated Tom Jenkins in two straight falls to become what has been recognized as the first ever World Wrestling Heavyweight Champion. While some folks contend that regional wrestling champions can be dated back even further, most consider this particular match to be the dawn of what has been seen as American profession wrestling. For this particular post, I want to look at this industry and give a brief understanding of how it got to where it is today.
For the next forty five years, a number of famous wrestlers would come to the scene. These men include the likes of Frank Gotch, Ed “Strangler” Lewis, Stanislaus Zbyszko, Joe Stretcher, Jim Londos,
However, in 1948, the National Wrestling Alliance is formed. While the first champion of the organization was Orville Brown, Lou Thesz would eventually become the real face of the NWA as World Heavyweight Champion by 1950. The whole principal behind the NWA was that each wrestling territory in the United States would operate independently, but that the NWA Champion would travel to each territory and defend the title there. What was most unique about being the NWA Champion was that the only way you were going to become champion was to be voted champion by the Championship Committee. So it was always in the best interest of each territorial wrestler to do their best, draw big crowds, and put on great matches to get the attention of the committee.
In 1952, the first big pay off to the industry was made as Lou Thesz battled Baron Michele Leone. The most notable part of this night was that the gate collected over $100,000 dollars. This was a rare thing to do at this time. It must be noted that wrestlers were only paid small amounts of money. To be a wrestler full time and do nothing else was a very gutsy thing to do, namely because you were never guaranteed a good, solid pay check.
Now, one would be remiss in not mentioning the name of Gorgeous George Wagner. This is the man virtually all wrestlers today have to, in some way, pay homage to. The reason is this man brought into existence a certain degree of theatrics to wrestling. He dyed his hair blonde, came out to the ring in expensive robes, beautiful women, and a persona that could not be matched.
As mentioned before, if a committee chose who would be champion, sooner or later someone would get ticked off and decided to break off from the NWA. Sure enough, the WWA (World Wrestling Association) decided they wanted to split off and have their own world title. On June 14, 1957, Edouard Carpentier defeated Lou Thesz for the NWA Title. The Championship Committee, however, said that Thesz never lost the title because the match was stopped due to injury. As a result, Thesz got the title back.
Carpentier would be recognized by disgruntled territories as the NWA Champion and he would travel to these different places and lose the title over and over and over again, thus setting up multiple world titles in the United States.
The most notable breakaway from the NWA occurred in 1963. The Northeast promoters were not thrilled when Lou Thesz defeated “The Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers for the NWA Title in a single fall bout. Tradition had always had the matches go for a two out of three fall match. As a result, the Northeast became the World Wide Wrestling Federation, naming Rogers their world champion.
Rogers would lose the title to Bruno Sammartino on May 17, 1963, in a match that lasted only 48 seconds. After that night, Sammartino would reign for nearly eight years. Sammartino was the ultimate champion for the WWWF. He was the Italian immigrant who could bring in the crowds to New York City. By the time he did lose the title, fans were so stunned that their hero lost, the crowd was dead silent when the referee raised the hand of Ivan Koloff. Sammartino would later comment that he thought his hearing was destroyed at some point during the match because of the crowd reaction.
As is the result of survival of the fittest, the territories found themselves beginning to break away from the NWA and try to become stronger than the NWA.
By 1980, there were three major promotions in the United States: WWF (World Wrestling Federation), NWA (National Wrestling Alliance), and the AWA (American Wrestling Association). The wars that would follow from this would be massive. The first victim was AWA. Both NWA and WWF raided the company and took their talent away from them. In fact, the big coup of professional wrestling occurred on January 23, 1984. On that night, Hulk Hogan defeated the Iron Sheik for the title. Before the match was to occur, Verne Gagne, owner of AWA, called the Iron Sheik and asked to break Hogan’s leg and come to the AWA with the WWF belt. Sheik refused to do it and would continue to remain loyal to the McMahon family.
In 1985, the first Wrestlemania was presented on pay per view. On this night, wrestling history was being rewritten. Two years later, the history of old school professional wrestling was washed away in WWF history as it was billed at Wrestlemania 3 that Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant had never met before in a match. Contrary to popular belief, the two men had met in a classic match in 1980. By not acknowledging this, Bruno Sammartino was erased from history and his legacy was gone.
For the NWA, life could not be any worse than it was by 1990. With so many of the old territories being bought up by Vince McMahon and the WWF, the NWA was being phased out of one territory by having its belt being referred to as the WCW (World Championship Wrestling) Heavyweight Title. In September 1993, WCW pulled out of the NWA, effectively cutting off the title from television.
With WCW and WWF, wrestling fans would be given a six year Monday night war as to the shows battled each other for supremacy. WWF Monday Night Raw versus WCW Monday Night Nitro would create ratings that would go from end to the other. During 1996-1997, Nitro dominated Raw, but by 1998, Raw began to rally back. A new generation of stars were coming into the company and giving the fans everything they wanted. Instead of having old wrestling matches, storylines were created, sex and violence were brought onto the screen, and people were given an outlet for their most carnal pleasures.
However, one organization that broke away from the NWA initially started the switch to the trends we see today. In 1994, ECW (Extreme Championship Wrestling) was created. As the name indicated, the extreme nature of the promotion gave fans a new outlet to watch wrestlers push the limits of their bodies and deliver new types of matches. Although ECW was more of a cult following when it came to the fans, a number of people came out of the company who would go on to bigger and better successes.
In 2001, both WCW and ECW would collapse. There are multiple reasons for their downfall, but the primary reasons are the same thing: television and money. WCW no longer had a network while ECW had no money. WWF remained on top. In 2002, the company changed its name to WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) and has recently re-launched ECW.
The new ECW was launched, in my opinion, as an attempt to combat the introduction of TNA (Total Nonstop Action) Wrestling. In 2002, the NWA would have a new territory introduce itself and become NWA TNA. This company, owned by the Jarrett family, combined three major pillars of professional wrestling with three of its stars: traditional wrestling in Jeff Jarrett, hardcore wrestling in Raven, and high flying action in AJ Styles.
The future of professional wrestling is unknown. However, its history is very rich. While this is a small outline of it, I guarantee, the rest of it has stories that will make your eyes widen when you hear all about it.