Ric Flair tells us “To be the man, you gotta beat the man”. Well, for a few years in the 1980s, I was the man when it came to wrestling fandom and knowledge.
Growing up during the boom of the WWF, I loved pro wrestling. I watched it every time it was on. I collected the action figures. I subscribed to the magazines. I listened to the Wrestling Album. Wrestling was right there with MLB, NFL, NBA, and NHL in my mind. For a time it was arguably my favorite “sport”. Until I found out it was a little different than the others.
In the early and mid-80s, wrestling was king for me and my friends. Hulk Hogan, Roddy Piper, Don Muraco, Big John Studd, and Andre the Giant ruled the day. We loved it. The finishing moves, the funny lines, the non-stop action, and intrigue kept us glued to our TV sets. One night in particular, I remember being in awe of what I saw inside the squared circle. It was also the night my love of wrestling probably hit it’s peak and started it’s decline.
Growing up just outside of Manhattan, I was lucky enough to have the MSG Network as part of our cable package. That meant that along with the Saturday morning wrestling action and the national cable broadcasts, I also got to see full cards from Madison Square Garden, the Mecca. One night Tito Santana and Muraco put on quite a show. The two battled inside and outside the ring. Both stars kept coming back despite taking a world class beating from their opponent. It was a match you’d show someone if you were trying to recruit new fans. When the incredible bout finally ended I ran downstairs to tell my grandmother all about it. After exuberantly recalling the contest blow by blow she turned to me and simply said “It’s all fake.” Just like that, a seed of doubt was planted. What did she mean by “fake”?
I was a different fan from that day forward. I became more skeptical. However, wrestling was still so good, I didn’t jump ship–not just yet. I watched for years more, just with a more careful eye. I enjoyed the quips from Gorilla Monsoon and Bobby Heenan. I rooted for my favorites like Piper and Paul Orndorff and against those I couldn’t stand like the Bushwhackers. The spectacle was still there even if my status as a true believer may have been diminished a bit.
It’s crazy that my grandmother is the one who started me on the road to non-wrestling fan. After all, this is the same woman who allowed me and my friends to have our very own wrestling “league” in her basement. We had a mat (an old mattress), ropes, belts, and everything. We piledrived kids, slapped on figure fours, and applied camel clutches. This behavior would not be tolerated today. Shockingly, despite all the flying forearms and claws, no one suffered any long term injuries. This was long before the era of snowflake kids and parents, so beating the heck out of each other in the basement was socially accepted.
As I got older and moved through middle school, I started to move away from wrestling. By high school, girls, playing sports, and other girls were now the top priorities. My time as a rabid wrestling fan was pretty much over. I appreciated what the WWF meant for me as a kid and I still enjoyed the shtick of Hogan, Randy Savage, and Mr. Fuji as much as the next guy, but I really had no desire to tune in to watch anymore. I was done for good. Or so I thought.
As the years went by I would hear about the WWF which eventually became the WWE but I had no interest in the Rocks or the Steve Austins of the world. I heard the names and knew the faces, but that was it. I’d rather wax poetic about “Dr. D” David Schultz or Greg “The Hammer” Valentine instead of hearing about this new, softer group. Like my grandfather would talk about Willie Mays and Joe DiMaggio, I felt the same way about King Kong Bundy and Harley Race. Our guys were simply “better”.
Then it happened. The unthinkable. Thanks to my kids–I am back. After a decades long hiatus, I am officially a wrestling fan once again. It’s different and I’m a different kind of fan than I was, but wrestling is once again a big part of life. My daughter and son love it. They’ve been watching WWE every week for the last two years and I’ve watched with them. While I still think the 80s were much better than today’s product I thoroughly enjoy seeing wrestling through the eyes of a nine and seven year old.
My son is all about the big guys. Braun Strowman, Kane, and The Undertaker top his list of favorites. My daughter is an aficionado of the women wrestlers–and boy have they changed since Fabulous Moolah. From Sasha Banks to Alexa Bliss to Asuka, today’s women are pleasing to the eye in every way. They’re better looking and better athletes. Unlike years ago, when a card may feature one women’s match, today’s lineup features a host of matches. Charlotte Flair, the Nature Boy’s daughter, is one of the current champs. Jimmy Snuka’s daughter is an up and comer. Women range from small and sassy like Bliss to large and in charge like Nia Jax. The women’s division may be the one aspect that is actually better now than it was in the WWF hey day.
I particularly like how my kids enjoy watching the “old guys”. My son can’t get enough of the midget matches. He’s a Beefcake and Hercules Hernandez fan. My daughter likes Tuesday Night Titans with Lord Alfred Hayes. She likes Mean Gene and Koko B. Ware. We’ve taken in several episodes of Fuji Vice. They’ve watched Donald Trump shave Vince McMahon’s head multiple times. They say stuff like “The Brain” and “The Adorable One” as much as they say “The Miz” or “The Viper”. This is much more fun than Disney Junior.
Now, while my kids admittedly have me hooked in some ways, there is plenty wrong with today’s WWE compared to my WWF. The finishing moves rarely finish anyone. Participants continue to kick out or reach the ropes before submission even after a big move is administered. When Jake “The Snake” Roberts delivered the dreaded DDT, you were done. Nowadays, guys get up from multiple moves like that.
They wrestle too much. Hogan would defend his title a few times a year. Now, champs fight all the time. Some wrestle weekly. They have major events like WrestleMania and Summer Slam, then wrestle again the very next day. Champs fight in non-title matches, and often get pinned. It’s too much. There was something to be said about waiting for the big events. Now, there’s no anticipation, rather saturation.
The whole admitting it’s “entertainment” and a “show” is disappointing too. The collective wink and a nod of the past was endearing. Now the wrestlers are even referred to as “actors” in the disclaimer that runs before WWE Network programs. It’s almost as if John Stossel got his ear bashed in in vein. Did Richard Belzer get lit up by the Hulkster for no reason?
Titles change hands way too often now. Consider this: From 1963-1988 there were exactly ten heavyweight champions. From 1988-now, there have been over 120 title changes. That’s way too much.
Where are the managers? Paul Heyman is hysterical and does a great job, but he’s one of very few actual managers. He even calls himself Brock Lesner’s “advocate”. In the WWF, the managers were as important as the wrestlers. Freddie Blassie, Fuji, and Heenan had us in stitches. Jimmy Hart running his mouth and running away from Matilda, the British Bulldog’s bulldog was classic. Captain Lou, Luscious Johnny, Slick, and the rest of them were colorful characters we will never forget.
There’s also been some logistical changes over the years that are not for the better. When wrestlers were introduced, the ring announcer used to always give their weight and hometown. Only those from “parts unknown” and the occasional “weight unknown” grapplers were exempt. Now, weight is given sometimes. Hometown for one competitor but not the other. There’s no consistency.
Even worse, when a bout ends, we are sometimes left in the dark. The Howard Finkels of the world would always tell us who won and how. “As a result of a countout”, “by disqualification”, etc. Sometimes we’d get word that there was a double countout or even a double disqualification. Now, bouts end and the announcer sometimes gives the result but other times, there’s complete silence. Someone must think this is a good move for some reason. It’s not.
There is a lot of good in today’s WWE as well. The cruiserweight division and 205 Live program has added a new dimension. Some of the humor is fantastic. It’s funny enough for the adults but for the most part clean enough for the kids. “Happy Rusev Day” is genius. Heath Slater’s “I Got Kids” bit is super. Drew Gulak’s fight against chants, the top rope, and the constant interruptions of his PowerPoint presentation is killer. The RAW vs. SmackDown setup works well. It’s almost like a National League vs. American League. The McMahon kids, Stephanie and Shane play their roles to perfection. There are some really talented athletes too. Neville is a beast, although he hasn’t been seen for sometime. The Usos are a solid tag team. The new girl gangs like Riott Squad and Absolution bring a lot of juice. The Festival of Friendship celebration with Chris Jericho and Kevin Owens was about as insane and awesome as any wrestling promotion ever. From Strowman’s brutal destruction of foe after foe to the electric acrobatics of A.J. Styles, today’s WWE has a lot to offer all ages.
I will never be the wrestling fan I was years ago. I really like Strowman and Jinder Mahal but they’ll never replace Piper or Orndorff. Jack Gallagher is terrific, but I’ll always long for the Hart Foundation. The New Day can eat pancakes forever but that can never replace George “The Animal” Steele eating a turnbuckle. I was a kid back then and I saw the WWF through a kid’s eyes. Now, it’s not so much the wrestling I’m enjoying, but the watching of it through the eyes of my kids. They talk about it all the time. They have the figures and shirts. They even wear the championship belts. WWE has become a great family event. For that, I’m glad I’m back. I hope my kids enjoy it even longer than I did. Now I just have to keep them away from their great grandmother when wrestling is the topic of conversation.
Follow Kevin Scholla on Twitter @kevinscholla