In the 1970s and 80s, professional wrestlers lived in a world of blood, brutality, and bad paydays. They adhered to a territory system that divided the country into 20 distinct parts, each of which they would tour until their act got stale. They traveled by car, splitting beer, gas, and pills, before arriving at shit-box motels to pass out in beds too small for their 300-pound frames.
Nowadays, pro-wrestlers are paid eight-figure sums, tour the country in plush tour buses and break character to console teary young fans at ringside. Back in the days of The Sheik and Tex McKenzie, tears were encouraged. It was a Wild West of greedy promotors and bitter veterans. The holds were hard and the blows were stiff, and with exposés yet to reveal the reality of the ring, the business was strictly "kayfabed" (protected) in fear that no one would pay to see a fake fight. Bill Watts, a promotor from Louisiana, told his wrestlers that if they ever got into a bar fight and didn't win, they were fired.
A best-of International Championship Wrestling video from the 1970s
All of the wrestlers knew how to work a crowd, and by the time WWE (or WWF, as it was called back then) became a global phenomenon in the late 80s—when the real money started being made—most of their roster had spent years in the territory system already. They were ready, in other words, even if the territories they were leaving behind weren't.
WWE was owned by Vince McMahon, a man whose tastes were softer-edged than the territories. He called his product "sports entertainment," not pro wrestling, and admitted quite openly that it was staged. Regardless, on Hulk Hogan's giant back, he propelled WWE to unheard-of heights.
Hogan, a flag-waving tank who told kids (his "Hulkamaniacs") to take their vitamins and say their prayers, was a long way off the territories' blood and guts. Wrestling remained serious there, but in WWE it became embarrassing and cartoonish, with personas including garbage men, dentists, hockey players, prisoners, and clowns.
It was hard to argue with McMahon's ambition, though. Through his international TV reach and willingness to cross territory lines—not just to stage shows, but also sign talent—he more or less destroyed the entire system by the early-90s, leaving it a two-horse race between WWE and billionaire Ted Turner's WCW. This spawned the "Monday Night Wars," with WCW's Nitro competing directly against WWE's Raw.
Despite WWE dominating initially (WCW's product was terrible by this point, sustained only by Turner's money), things changed in 1996 when WCW signed two of WWE's biggest stars, Scott Hall and Kevin Nash. Back then, the internet only had around 10 million users (compared to its 3 billion today), meaning the pair's appearance on Nitro was a genuine shock to most viewers—it seemed unplanned, like WWE was somehow "invading."
Suddenly, what had grown tired became exciting, and that thing we'd all been told was fake felt a little bit realer.
Nitro pounded Raw in the ratings and WCW quickly became the number one promotion in the country. By the time Hall and Nash had called themselves the "new World order" (nWo)—adopting dress and gang signs synonymous with the East/West coast rap wars of the time—their group had been joined by a third member, WWE God Hogan, now wearing black and telling his Hulkamaniacs just how much he hated them.
Wrestling had changed again, even as McMahon persisted with his pig farmers over on Raw. Once dominant, WWE now seemed on the verge of closing down.
Yet, we know that didn't happen. Instead, grudgingly accepting that something had to give, McMahon joined Turner in the real world by creating a show as risqué as everything else on nighttime television. He made himself a character (the villainous owner) and feuded with Stone Cold Steve Austin, a beer-drinking Texan who fulfilled the dream of every man by kicking the shit out of his boss. There was increased violence, but also sex, profanity and a general lack of giving a fuck. The whacky characters became pimps and porn stars, and even WWE began calling this period the "Attitude Era."
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The WCW Viagra-on-a-pole match
Along with WCW's complete mismanagement—which included David Arquette winning their World Championship, a Viagra-on-a-pole match, and tolerating a backstage climate of pointless politicking and aging superstars—this pushed WWE so far ahead that, in 2001, Turner tapped out and sold WCW to McMahon for almost nothing.
It had taken him 20 years, but at last Vince was the only dog in town.
The company launched their WWE Network last week in the UK, nearly a year after doing so in the US. The online archive offers not just every past WWE and WCW pay-per-view, but also every live WWE one—including Sunday's Royal Rumble and March's Wrestlemania—at £9.99 a month. A good deal when you consider that usually pay-per-views cost £19.95 on Sky Box Office.
In fact, it's such a good deal that it makes absolutely no sense for the WWE, unless they're hoping (which they are) to balance out the pay-per-view drop-offs by bringing many more fans to the network than those who would ordinarily pay for the one-offs.
The problem with this logic is that the most-viewed things on the network are the current shows, meaning that most people are weighing up their decision to subscribe based on them. This means, with the product perceived as shoddy these days, that the millions who watch Raw, but don't buy pay-per-views normally, are still choosing to pay nothing rather than something.
With subscriber numbers in the US well below anticipated, and with pay-per-view buy-rates inevitably down, all WWE has achieved—along with losing McMahon a third of his fortune—is allowing their hardcore fan-base, who were happy to buy high-priced pay-per-views in the first place, access to them at a lower price.
This is indicative of WWE since they bought WCW, of not just the slide back toward the infantilism of the 90s, but of the mismanagement and bureaucracy now rife in its own ranks. Though McMahon still runs things, he's joined at the helm by his son-in-law, Triple H, a wrestler with the reputation of not letting others beat him.
The product has become stale—it lacks diversity and is again disconnected from the world around it, with wrestlers being taught to look the same, work the same, and act the same in their training camps (a far cry from the territories), and then by a team of writers.
Though this is probably the result of having old, tired egos in charge, it can't help to have no competition pushing them forwards. In December, having walked out of the company months earlier, CM Punk—real name Phil Brooks—complained of the creatively-stifled culture Triple H and McMahon have fostered, where not much thought is given to any wrestler beyond children's favorite John Cena. A rebellious character in line with Steve Austin, Punk is someone WWE should have been built around. Alas, he's since signed for the UFC.
Left to its own devices, it isn't hard to see WWE continuing down this road until doing what everybody else did: going out of business. I'm not saying it'll happen tomorrow, but with the competition clearly nowhere to be found (sorry, TNA), the predatory practices that propelled it to dominance may ultimately be the same ones that destroy it. Once the example of healthy capitalism, the American wrestling industry now has the look of a failed authoritarian state.§
When my parents told me that wrestling was fake, it phased me for a second, but ultimately the dynamic of good vs. bad pulled me back in. This dynamic is everywhere: the Bible, Shakespeare, Greek myths... We identify with it so strongly because it simplifies life into the perfect equation of good equals us and bad equals our pain—and when good inevitably wins, we feel like we've beaten our pain, even if only fleetingly.
As fans get older and become more knowledgable, this dynamic remains: there's always some wrestler who we feel is deserving of more—the hardest worker, the nicest guy—who we identify with in the hope that, one day, he'll get what he deserves.
Wrestling allows us to hope, to escape. And if it does die, we can replace it. But I still can't help being sad at the prospect of something that captured so many minds staying down for the 1, 2, 3.