The Phantom Of The Ring
This column appeared in Wrestling Perspective, Volume IX, Issue 75.
Copyright Notice: This column is Copyright © 1998 Wrestling Perspective and may not be quoted, reprinted or distributed without written persmission from Wrestling Perspective publishers Paul MacArthur and David Skolnick.
Over the last two years, at least, there has been a veritable explosion of wrestling history among those who consider themselves serious fans. There was a time when I was writing this column for just a few; now I write it for just a few more. Besides my own fleeting contributions, there are now at least two newsletters devoted to the past as well as a couple of websites. Books on wrestling history are making their way to the shelves. But, why history, and why now? That's what we're going to attempt to find out. Over the next few columns I will trace the current infatuation with wrestling and its shady past. Though I won't tip too much at this stage, you may be surprised to discover that wrestling history owes much more to a French academic of the Fifties than to any one wrestling historian.
The best place to begin a historical journey is with a relevant event of the recent past. The biggest thing in the recent past, at least the most talked about among wrestling fans, is the A & E special, The Unreal Story of Professional Wrestling I've spoken with a few fans and read a few commentaries about it. However, everyone misses the point. For instance, Dave Meltzer begins his critique in his Wrestling Observer Newsletter by asking us to "imagine a documentary on the NBA where the name of Wilt Chamberlain was not even mentioned and where history was recreated to where Michael Jordan claimed to have invented the slam dunk and where the recent commissioner was credited with the idea of putting the NBA on prime-time television." What's wrong with this critique, you ask? Everything, I say. The critics of the documentary make the mistake of taking it literally. Wrestling, unlike other sports, is not to be taken literally. That's why they call it "sports entertainment." The only thing that should be taken literally here is the title of the documentary: The Unreal Story of Professional Wrestling.
Yeah, yeah, but what about the show's falsification of history? What falsification? How can one falsify the history of a sport that specifically has no history? What do you mean, "no history?" Of course wrestling has a history. No, it doesn't. What wrestling has is a past, and that is completely different. History is a coherent record of events. For instance, we may not agree if Edward I of England was a good king or a bad one, but we do agree, for we are certain, that he was king. There is an official record of succession English history students can use to determine whom Edward succeeded and who succeeded him. Ah, but doesn't wrestling also have such a list of its champions? Technically yes, but only if you want to get real technical. There was such a list used by the NWA to trace its champions, but that list is bogus. There was such a thing as "England" when Edward I was king, but there was no such thing as the NWA when Frank Gotch was supposedly its champion. The NWA list of champions is nothing more than a convenient form of myth created for the purpose of making that which is essentially shady look for all intents and purposes legit. For instance, when I was researching the career of Earl Caddock, I found he was one of at least four wrestlers claiming the crown. The former champion, Joe Stecher, still claiming the title, was recognized in certain areas of the country. Which organization recognized Caddock? Which recognized Stecher? None. Unlike other organized sports, and unlike its close cousin, boxing, anyone can pass himself off as a champion, as long as a promoter is willing to recognize (i.e., make money) his legitimacy.
Wrestling has no one else but itself to blame for this. Not that anyone really cares. The less you know the better off they are. We know more about the behind the scenes goings-on during the World Series scandal of 1919 than we do of the behind the scenes preparations for the Gotch-Hackenschmidt match of 1908. That is sad.
So, barring an adequate history, wrestling turned to the next best thing - a mythology. The history of wrestling is in fact a thinly-disguised mythology, bent and twisted to fit the needs of whoever is telling the story at the time. Wrestling is a sport living in the eternal now; its future only stretching ahead to the next big card and its past only reaching as far back as the last big card. This is what The Unreal Story captures rather brilliantly, the fact that there is no history of the game, just a series of matches and anecdotes. Baseball needs a history, wrestling needs the next big card.
That being the case, is the documentary accurate? Yes and no. In wrestling, accuracy is a most tenuous term indeed. Because wrestling took place behind closed doors, there are very few objective facts. Newspaper records of matches that took place, attendance and time of said matches, and newspaper records of proclaimed territorial champions are what pass for objective facts in wrestling. But even these were subject to editing, depending on the objectivity of the reporter and quite often supplied to said reporter by the promoter before the matches took place. Accuracy is in the eye of the beholder, the one who is writing the history. In this case, the producers of the A&E documentary are writing the history and they are being aided and abetted by experts in the field. Of course, they have chosen these experts, but let's not quibble over that. Do I agree with these experts? Again yes and no. My version of wrestling history is different from theirs. It is up to the reader to make the choice. But that's the great thing about wrestling one version of history is as good as the other.
Steve Allen narrates The Unreal Story, and the viewer would be led to think this is because Allen is a skeptical comic. But Allen actually cut his broadcasting teeth doing wrestling play-by-play. Not that you'd know this from watching the documentary; Allen doesn't even mention it once. After all, it would clash with his current pose as an intellectual. Wrestling is something to be laughed at, not taken seriously. Speaking of laughing, one of the first images we see is that of Dr. Michael Ball, Professor of Popular Culture at one of our higher centers of learning. Echoing Aristotle in a smarmy way, he tells us that "people have an insatiable appetite for the re-enactment of rituals." Based on his book about wrestling, Dr. Ball has an insatiable appetite for making stupid statements. People have an appetite for entertainment. I can only be glad Dr. Ball has not discovered the Three Stooges. Vince McMahon describes wrestling as a magic show; only he's not going to tell you how he does the magic. It's all right, we figured it out long ago.
That being said, the show now takes a u-turn and attempts to trace wrestling back to ancient Greece. If, as McMahon says, wrestling is a magic show, why the need to trace it back to the Greeks? Were the Greeks also magicians? Just keep in mind that during this "expose" nothing will be exposed. All facts and theories presented will be to justify the mythology that passes for history. Like Martin Heidegger, wrestling must always return to Greece. Even Marcus Griffin did this in his expose of the game. The wrestling contests of the ancient Greeks bear as much relevance to today's professional wrestling as ancient archery contests do to those the archery contests of today. (Unless we can somehow conceive of Milo of Croton winning his matches with a top rope hurracanrana and then a Stone Cold stunner for the pin.) At any rate our time is wasted with much useless information, and some erroneous information also, such as "Plato" meaning "broad-shouldered." The name "Plato" actually was a nickname meaning "broad." In today's parlance, "fatso." So much for the Greeks. The ancient sport that most closely resembled today's wrestling was the Roman gladiatorial contest. Violent, and often faked. (See Robert Graves's I, Claudius.)
A more earnest attempt comes in when the Americanized form of "scuffling" is mentioned, although claiming the likes of Washington and Lincoln as championship wrestlers is specious indeed. It is only when the documentary stops at the carnival that the real roots of modern-day wrestling are revealed in all their glory. This was glossed over by the producers, which is quite in keeping with the accepted myths of wrestling history. If the viewer ever knew what really went on in those carnivals, it would destroy the delicate fabric being woven and morph into another show entirely.
Cut to Gotch vs. George Hackenschmidt. Where was William Muldoon? Barely mentioned, that's where, although Muldoon was the first to combine Greco-Roman with American "scuffling" and laid the foundation for what became known as "catch-as-catch-can." Muldoon also brought the matches from the back rooms of taverns and carnival tents into theaters, promoting a more wholesome, festive, storylined atmosphere. The 1908 Gotch-Hackenschmidt match, and the subsequent rematch in 1911, caught the attention of the press and public like no wrestling match before, or since. We are told the first ended with a Gotch victory, but Hackenschmidt later claimed foul because Gotch's body was so oiled, a hold could not be properly applied. A rematch was agreed in 1911. Lou Thesz then goes on to tell the story of Gotch's camp insuring victory, by engaging Ad Santel to injure Hackenschmidt. Gotch promised Hack a fall, but then, knowing Hack was injured, double-crossed the Russian and won two straight falls. Because the Santel story hit the papers shortly thereafter, wrestling became discredited.
That's the story, anyway. I didn't believe it then and I don't believe it now. Gotch was notorious for working programs with opponents. It was easy money, and besides, Gotch's toe hold was so feared it made cooperation that much easier. (It is certainly ironic that the common wisdom now is that Gotch worked a program with Fred Beell. Yours truly was the first to expose Gotch on this years ago, but I guess it just sounds better when they say it.) Further, many of Gotch's opponents were from his camp, such as Dan McLeod, Emil Klank, and Yankee Rogers (who doubled as Gotch's policeman). Hackenschmidt was a devotee of what was known as physical culture, a combination of weightlifting, body-building and wacky nutrition theories. He was put over as champ in Europe, but crowds were diminishing after eight years on top and Hack was looking for a big payday. The first loss to Gotch killed Hack's box office. He was for all intents and purposes finished as a headliner. But Gotch needed Hack, needed the big payday and restoration of respect Hack would provide this. Things had not gone well for Gotch either since that first match. Too many bouts with too many shenanigans for the public to stomach. It was so bad that Gotch even worked a few circus matches. Of course they both claimed to be injured. In reality, Gotch wasn't, but I believe Hackenschmidt was. I believe Hack went into the match with a bad knee. Was Santel at Hack's camp? Yes, but as an observer for Gotch and a coach for Hackenschmidt. Santel was there to coach Hack on the ins and outs of "catch" wrestling. Remember, Hackenschmidt worked the European style, which was heavily Greco-Roman. Did Santel injure Hackenschmidt at the behest of Gotch? No. That would have been a cowardly act. Gotch was many things, most of them bad, but he was no coward. Gotch also knew he'd have little trouble with Hackenschmidt (even wrestling historian Mike Chapman admitted on the documentary that Hack had only one move). Hack was there for the money, the only concession made by Gotch being to give Hack a fall. When Gotch discovered Hack was already injured, the deal was off and Hack was pinned two straight falls. I don't, nor would I ever, doubt Thesz. I'm sure he heard the story from Santel. I just believe we should look at the context of the story and who was telling it. Who comes off best in the story? Santel. Who was telling the story? Santel. Also, the story never hit the papers, existing only in the imagination of Ad Santel. Great story, though, and a worthy addition to the myth of wrestling.
Other bon mots to come out were the insistence that wrestling changed because fans were tired of all the five-hour bouts. This came from Mike Chapman. In reality, bouts this long were the rare exception rather than the rule, and only when the boys couldn't trust each other. I found only two while doing my research. In one, Muldoon supposedly went an astounding nine hours with Clarence Whistler. Watching that must have been every bit as exciting as watching molasses drip. Chapman is an excellent historian, really top notch, but he is one who protects the business. The best remark on Gotch was made by Sheldon Goldberg, who was easily the best thing about the entire show, when he compared Gotch with Hulk Hogan in terms of image and popularity. This is why Gotch went out as champ and why Hogan probably will when his time comes. The terms "hooker," "shooter" and "journeyman" are also explained, providing a hierarchy and a sense of contest in a sport that had neither. "Hooker" and "shooter" come from the carnival. To "hook" is to double-cross, such as the barker rigging the carny games so the sucker can't win. In wrestling it also refers to a double-cross, a "hooker" being a double-crosser. After a while it became a badge of honor and signified people outside the wrestling trust. To be a hooker, you had to be really good at your craft. "Shooter" comes from "straight shooter," referring to rifles that weren't tampered with; eventually "shoot" was equated with honest. "Journeyman" comes from tradesmen who work job to job, doing a "job" eventually meaning losing.
Next we go to the Twenties and the era of Ed Lewis. Lewis was given his due as a great champion, but strangely glossed over were the contributions of wrestling's greatest genius, Toots Mondt. Toots is the man who invented modern professional wrestling and a mere mention is all he gets. Around 95 percent of the finishes and 80 percent of the finishing holds today were invented by Mondt. One tidbit passed out about Ed Lewis was that he got the name "Strangler" while in Paris. Hooey. Billy Sandow gave him the name after Evan "Strangler" Lewis. Also stated is that Lewis beat Joe Stecher in 1915 in one of those five-hour shooting contests. Supposedly, after the bout Lewis went partying in search of a good time and Stecher went to the hospital in search of medication. That one sounds just a bit too good for me. Remember, a shoot could simply be little or no contact or movement in a ring. We are also told that Lewis beat Stecher in a shoot in 1921. Thus Lewis is built up into the stuff wrestling myth is made of. Lewis is also set up as the toughest pro wrestler of his time, important for the viewer to know in an era of double-crosses, but again, this only serves legend and not history. Actually, the toughest s.o.b. of the era worked alongside Lewis, and that was Mondt. If there was a rumor that a wrestler wanted to hook Lewis, the guy just might find himself in the ring with Mondt. Remember, years after retiring from the ring, Mondt still had enough in him to destroy Dick Shikat who was no cream puff himself. Besides, all this is academic because hooking "trust-busters" such as John Pesak, Fred Grubmeier and the like never got a shot against Lewis unless the rules were agreed to beforehand. At any rate, scant time is spent on Lewis, who, more than any other wrestler, represented the championship. That was because the last wrestling champion to be taken seriously was Ed Lewis. Was Lewis the greatest? It's hinted at in the documentary, but in reality... well, that's a different story. Put Lewis in his prime into a ring with Thesz in his prime and Thesz would have cleaned Lewis's clock. The same goes with Bruno Sammartino. Bruno would have little trouble. Nor would Dick Hutton, Danny Hodge (both trained by Lewis, ironically), Verne Gagne and Karl Gotch. Why? Not only are these wrestlers bigger and faster than Lewis, the game (including amateur wrestling) is bigger and faster. However, what the documentary doesn't mention is that Lewis was one of the greatest teachers of wrestling who ever lived. This would have been interesting to dwell on, but to do so would take time from the current scene, where the color footage lies.
Next, we are treated to the rise of Jim Londos, the dominant (in terms of popularity and influence) wrestler of the Thirties. However, unmentioned goes the fact that Londos could not defend his title in about 21 states due to outstanding warrants for his arrest on fraud charges. That would ruin the tapestry being ever so carefully woven by the producer. The documentary rightly points out that Londos was the greatest draw of his era, roughly 1929 to 1940, and credits him with bringing in women fans (due to his matinee idol looks), but then goes on to qualify this statement by telling us that wrestling nose-dived in attendance during the Depression. True? Well, again yes and no. Meltzer, in his review, would have us believe that wrestling, like the movies, prospered during this time because the public craved escapist entertainment. This argument is as loony as the one put forth in the documentary. Logic, and its partner, critical thinking, on the other hand, tell us that it is preposterous to make absolute statements when dealing with such a lengthy period in history. The Depression began in 1929 and many historians agree that it was due to World War II that we were able to escape. In the early years of the Depression, escapist entertainment did quite well. "Forget your troubles, prosperity is just around the corner," was the slogan of the day. However, in 1934 it became clear that prosperity was a lot further away than the corner. As a result, escapist entertainment faltered. Several movie companies, such as Universal, Warner Bros., and Paramount teetered close to extinction. RKO was single-handedly saved in 1935 by the Astaire-Rogers musicals. Theaters turned to gimmicks like "dish night," "bank night," and "screeno." Wrestling, too, turned to gimmicks: Farmer Jones and his pig helped save Morris Siegel in Houston. Mud wrestling became a hit, only to be followed by Jell-O wrestling, and even fish wrestling, in which the combatants fought in a pile of fish. Challengers were called from the audience to the ring; this was especially popular when a woman wrestler was in the ring.
How does the documentary deal with this? It doesn't. We are told that wrestling attendance declined during the Thirties but not why. Thesz tells us that guys were forced to lose to wrestlers they could beat in order to get a paycheck. As if that never happened before. Or since. We are also told the story of the drunken press agent who mistakenly sent out the evening's results to the papers before the matches began - wrestling's version of the urban myth - and thereby ruined wrestling for everyone. In actuality, sportswriters took sadistic delight in getting the results beforehand and publishing them in the early evening edition. This form of enjoyment began with Dan Parker of the New York Mirror. Parker got the information from Jack Pfeffer, who at one time or another during the Thirties, was on the outs with every major promoter in the city and hence looking for revenge. No doubt this hurt, given the economic climate. But wrestling also contributed to its demise in New York. The Danno O'Mahoney-Shikat and Ali Baba-Dave Levin matches were public embarrassments. The final nail in the coffin came with the death of promoter Jack Curley. Curley had the political connections necessary to keep the political wolves from the doors. One of his great moves was allying himself with the Hearst Fresh Milk Fund, guaranteeing free publicity and support from the Hearst media chain. Curley's successors lacked his magic touch and soon found themselves squeezed from the Garden by political opponents. Tex Rickard, Garden boxing promoter, was said to have borne a grudge against Curley for a part Curley supposedly played years ago when Rickard was denied a wrestling promoter's license, and when the chance came, Rickard helped squeeze the boys from the Garden.
So far the special has covered wrestling from the Greeks to the Forties
in only 30 minutes, one-fourth of its allotted two hours. But as we shall
see next issue the best is yet to come.
The Phantom of the Ring is a regular contributor to Wrestling Perspective. To read more of his great writing, subscribe to Wrestling Perspective. At only $1.50 an issue, you can't lose.
Go Back To The Wrestling Perspective Main Page
This page is copyright © 1999 Wrestling Perspective. All rights reserved.
Wrestling Perspective and The Phantom of the Ring are trademarked.
In Perspective, A Different Perspective, WP and Perspective/Counter Perspective are servicemarks of Wrestling Perspective.