Mourning what pro wrestling's become, honoring what it used to be (and lists)
Remember when what happened in, and out, of the squared circle looked like a real fight? Sadly, few in the wrestling business still do … also lists; lots of lists
I’ve been wanting to write about professional wrestling for a long time and, having no idea where I’ll take this, we can just start here.
Wrestlemania, now a two-day event, is Saturday and Sunday, and, though I’ve done no research — and will do my best not to, because I’m curious what will happen if I rip right through it — I’m pretty sure the main event is Roman Reigns and Brock Lesnar and, for God’s sake, I hope it’s in a cage because the crime would be using Wrestlemania to not settle anything, not have a winner, not pay off the fans with some kind of finality.
It’s the biggest day of the wrestling year, the least you can do is create conditions that demand a clean finish.
I won’t be watching, of course.
I won’t be watching because the WWE, formerly the WWF and the WWWF prior to that, back when it honored kayfabe, performers lived their character and half the folks in the arena thought it was real and the other half suspended their disbelief, well, the company that used to be all that has ruined the squared circle over the last 20 years.
These days, if you watch, you know that not only is the crowd in on it, but the company is happy for it to be in on it.
I’ve heard that among the keys to acting, one of them is not being caught acting. If you can do that, you’re doing it right.
You know who was never caught acting? Ric Flair and Dusty Rhodes and Harley Race and Rick Steamboat were never caught acting (at least when they worked in the NWA’s territories).
Nor were Mr. Wrestling II, Bill Watts, Brett Hart or Jerry Lawler.
Flipping channels Thursday night, I landed on the WWE’s Smackdown for about two minutes.
Reigns was in the ring with Paul Heyman, or Paul E. Dangerously from back in the day, and they were looking up the ramp to see who might come down to the ring, only for Lesnar to come through the crowd from the other side.
Lesnar jumped on the broadcasting table, when, suddenly, maybe eight “security” personnel jumped in front of him trying to talk him down. Instead, Lesnar jumped down, landed a high boot to the dude in front of him and began swinging the chair.
He wound up using the chair on several of them, but always carefully on their backs, rumps or the backs of their thighs, because we can’t have the young kids in the WWE’s training program, posing as security, taking actually dangerous chair shots.
It was so disgustingly and obviously choreographed.
One shot to the head — wrestlers have been taking head shots without actually taking them for decades, throwing their hands up simultaneously to the chair coming down and, done well, it looks real — and the remaining “security” personnel running away would have been far more convincing.
Somehow, back in the old days, when the dressing room would empty, trying to keep Tony Atlas and Ole Anderson from each other, or Tommy Rich and Buzz Sawyer broken up, it always looked like the real thing.
Not last night on Smackdown.
Not even close.
Anyway, that’s what triggered this.
I finally couldn’t stand it. Had to write about it.
Outraged by what wrestling’s become, I finally have a jumping off point to go deep on a childhood obsession that followed me through college, had me a regular watcher of several territories, a buyer of the magazines, a student of the game, a kid who worked hard to keep up with it all, just like I did the real sports.
I think about it quite a lot.
I wonder if somebody could give Jim Cornette $100 million, would he leave the collectable business and run another wrestling company, because he seems like the last guru, among the last to really care what it looks like, who knows a room full of writers will never do what one good booker can do, who knows how to keep the plates in the air.
Alas, Cornette appears to be enjoying his life on the two podcasts he pops out each week, telling stories, answering questions and wonderfully critiquing all that ails a once proud tradition.
If you’re thinking you’ve heard that name, Cornette, but can’t place him, he’s the guy with the tennis racket who managed the Midnight Express, Beautiful Bobby (Eaton) and Loverboy Dennis (Condrey), before Condrey left, to be replaced by Sweet Stan (Lane).
You may remember them feuding with the Rock’n’Roll Express in multiple territories, perhaps most notably Mid-South, Cowboy Bill Watts’ promotion, later to be renamed Universal, operating in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi.
I wonder if somebody could put back together a promotion in which wrestling again looked like a real fight, between faces and heels, broadcast as though it is indeed a competitive contest, treated as though real, the way Watts treated it in Mid-South, the Crocketts in the Carolinas, Jim Barnett in Georgia, the Funks in Amarillo, Jerry Jarrett in Memphis, the Fullers in Knoxville, Eddie Graham in Florida, Fritz Von Erich in Dallas and Verne Gagne in the whole of the old AWA, which claimed most of the Midwest.
The last place that’s still happening, I’m pretty sure, is Japan.
In 2021 — confession, I just did some research — you could watch New Japan Pro Wrestling on the Roku Channel and it’s still there if you want to cue it up and I have to tell you, treating it like a sport rather than a farce makes all the difference in the world.
I’m just riffing here.
I wanted to write about wrestling.
Finally, I’ve written about wrestling.
I’ll close with a few lists.
Feel free to offer your own.
Personal top 10.
(Not a best list, but a favorites list)
1. Dusty Rhodes
2. Ric Flair
3. Kevin Von Erich
4. Diamond Dallas Paige
6. Mr. Wrestling II
7. Rock’n’Roll Express (Ricky Morton and Robert Gibson)
9. Ted DiBiase
10. Barry Windham
Note: I really have almost use for the WWE/WWF/WWWF
All-time top 10.
(If there were a squared circle Mt. Rushmore, or two or three)
1. Ric Flair
2. Hulk Hogan
3. Lou Thesz
4. Dusty Rhodes
5. Bruno Sammartino
6. Nick Bockwinkle
7. Bobby Heenan
8. Harley Race
9. Jerry Lawler
10. Verne Gagne
Note: I will die on the hill of Dusty Rhodes, the American Dream, being horribly underrated as an in-ring performer. So amazing on the microphone, with such a roly-poly body, he’s not been given his due in the ring. He may not have been a technical wrestler extraordinaire, but he was fabulously entertaining. Though the best on the mic, he didn’t have to say a word to bring a crowd to its feet.
Second Note: It pains me to put Hogan on this list as all, but he made it mainstream, helped it explode and that counts, even if his finishing move, a leg drop, was never, ever, very convincing (the only less convincing finisher from a superstar probably belongs to John Cena).
Top 10 tag teams
(Not favorites, best)
1. Midnight Express
2. Rock’n’Roll Express
3. Tully Blanchard and Arn Anderson
4. Fabulous Freebirds
5. Road Warriors
6. Ole and Gene Anderson
7. Terry Funk and Dory Funk Jr.
8. Kevin and David Von Erich
9. Rick and Scott Steiner
10. Dick the Bruiser and Crusher
Top 10 managers
1. Bobby Heenan
2. Jim Cornette
3. Gary Hart
4. James J. Dillon
5. Skandor Akbar
6. Bobby Davis (look him up)
7. Fred Blassie
8. Arnold Skalland
9. Paul Ellering
10. Oliver Humperdinck
Top 10 who died too young
1. David Von Erich
2. Gino Hernandez
3. Buzz Sawyer
4. Eddie Guerrero
5. Kerry Von Erich
6. Eddie Gilbert
7. Brian Pillman
8. Bruiser Brody
9. Terry Gordy
10. Owen Hart
Top 5 announcers
1. Gordon Solie
2. Jim Ross
3. Bill Watts
4. Gorilla Monsoon
5. Lance Russell
Some things you just have to see
1. The Ted Debase-Dick Murdoch double turn
2. Dusty Rhodes’ Hard Times promo
3. Dusty wins NWA title, fans celebrate in the ring
5. The pop when the Midnights won the NWA belts
6. The Funks vs. Abdullah and The Sheik in Japan
7. Superfly from atop the cage
8. The Nature Boy in rare form
9. Kerry Von Erich winning NWA belt at Texas Stadium
10. Magnum TA making Tully Blanchard quit
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Legion of Doom was bigger than the Road Warriors gimmick and they should be higher!