We used to riot at wrestling matches, once upon a time. We'd rush the ring or crowd the heels out of the stadium. We'd hurl garbage and profanity, red-faced, serious, and seething.We didn't know then what we know now, some might suggest as explanation—that pro-wrestling fans have since smartened up about their sport. In the old days, this argument goes, we sincerely believed that Gorgeous George and Bruno Sammartino were fighting for real; the riots, when they came, were because we didn't know.
But we've always known. In his book, The Squared Circle, Grantland's David Shoemaker does a fine job of pointing out hints of the truth about wrestling in the media as far back as the 1920s. It's better to say that we watched pro wrestling differently, without irony and with a willing sublimation of disbelief.
Where wrestling fans were once inclined to tamp down any awareness of the sport's fakery, we are now inclined to embrace it. We got here, for better or worse, with the help of various guides. There were wrestlers like Ric Flair, John Cena, Steve Austin, Brian Pillman. There were bookers and creative types like Paul Heyman. Then there was the play-by-play announcer Gordon Solie, who died 15 years ago this week.Back when we used to riot at wrestling matches, Solie was the voice of wrestling. He had a reedy voice, with a whiff of both Minnesota and his adopted Florida; the smoker's growl endemic to men of his generation underpinned it, giving it an earthy and serious low end.And Solie was serious. Always serious. Wrestling was real then, and by God Gordon Solie treated it that way. He called matches with precision: the names of the moves were always correct, a run-in or post-match beatdown layered with precisely the amount of gravitas warranted by its place on the card. To listen to Solie was to listen to a "real" sports announcer.
Solie represented a certain continuity in the pro-wrestling world. He started in 1960, coming over from a Florida radio show to host Championship Wrestling from Florida. CWF was one of what were called territories: the regional promotions lorded over by local big-timers under the umbrella of the National Wrestling Alliance.
As Solie perfected his craft, the territories slowly cannibalized one another. He took on announcing duties at other promotions, chief among them Georgia Championship Wrestling, the flagship program of the nascent WTBS, out of Atlanta, a channel run by some punk named Ted Turner. As a kid in central North Carolina, I could catch snatches of at least five different promotions' programming in a given week. Solie was on at least half of them.It was strange, hearing Solie announce matches taking place hours away from one another on the same weekend. But he was there, always: omnipresent, severe, at once fatherly cold and grandfatherly warm. He moved deftly between being the sort of peripheral figure an announcer is expected to be and being the central figure that wrestling announcers sometimes are allowed to be. Solie became the latter when he mediated Ole Anderson's 1980 double-crossing of Dusty Rhodes, arguably the greatest heel turn in old-school wrestling history.His voice united all these weird, self-interested Southern promotions in a way none of their proprietors could. When the Carolinas region, under Jim Crockett Promotions, slowly gobbled up its neighbors, Solie was already there, announcing away, as if nothing had happened. When JCP grabbed the NWA mantle, essentially replacing the ancien régime, Solie was there. His presence smoothed the chaos for fans. The show went on as usual, because it sounded the same.
Solie was there as the seriousness died down and the audience turned away from treating pro wrestling like an emotional blood sport. It only made sense, when Turner started World Championship Wrestling and delivered the final deathblow to the territory system, for Solie to join its announcing team. He was there with a young and already very excitable Jim Ross.It didn't work out. Solie, he of science and seriousness, couldn't transition to wrestling's era of steroids and absurd gimmicks. He butted heads with Eric Bischoff, the head of WCW, whom he called a "corporate assassin." Solie left in 1995.Solie continued to do minor work with NJPW and some local Florida promotions, but his departure from popular wrestling marked the end of a particular era. Solie's voice gave way to those of Jim Ross, the former WWE announcer, and Joey Styles: loud, brash, part of the action, imprecise. As our capacity to lose ourselves in wrestling faded, things got louder. That transition was not by any means bad, but it was different. With Gordon Solie calling the action, we could convince ourselves that it was worth rushing the ring over Ole Anderson; no such suspension of disbelief was possible in, say, a Mantaur match being called by Ross.Solie did not just straddle those two eras; he traversed the bulk of pro wrestling's televised history. WWE, in its self-appointed role as protector of the sport's legacy, honored Solie by inducting him into its hall of fame in 2008. This was right and proper, but an even greater tribute was when Florida Championship Wrestling, precursor to WWE's NXT developmental territory, signed off with Solie's trademark closer from decades before: "So long from the Sunshine State." That gesture was closer to the heart, and closer to the truth.For all that, Gordon Solie is likely to be forgotten—15 years on, he already mostly is. The recordings of his that do exist are of insufficient quality or whittled down to snippets; the rough and tumble of wrestling in his glory days is too niche to scan properly today. There is no way for a fan today to hear Gordon Solie the way I did in my youth, and not just because the wrestling he announced is long gone.Yet Solie is one of the most important figures in pro-wrestling history. Before you can be ironic, you have to be earnest. Before you can laugh at wrestling, you have to treat it seriously. Solie parsed the sport when it was serious business. He helped us fool ourselves, but in the good way, the way that a talented artist can make you believe in the foolishness of a book or a play.You can still hear Solie's voice sometimes, faintly, in the call of a "soo-play," or when someone references a bleeding wrestler's "crimson mask." Solie's protégé, Jim Ross, will still tell you that Solie is the best there ever was on the mic. He's 15 years gone, but pro wrestling is a haunted thing. Its past lives always at the edge of the present. Gordon Solie lingers, just out of earshot.