Advent of the Angels: The Golden Age of Professional Wrestling in the United States

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I've never been a pro wrestling aficionado. There are certain things about my life and positionality that don't match up with accepted cultural narratives, and professional wrestling is one of them. Along with Star Wars, superhero comics, G.I. Joe and Transformers, pro wrestling's so-called Golden Age was one of the biggest shared cultural signifiers of the mid-period Long 1980s fondly remembered by anyone old enough to have lived through them, yet notably absent from my own lived experiences of the era.

I didn't choose those topics at pure random: Those subjects are things I've noticed over the past decade or so trotted out as some of the most beloved and iconic pop culture memories and reference points from this period. I do think there's a secondary story here though in that nostalgia for these particular things, above all others, is a recent innovation brought upon by the reification of a specific kind of retro discourse from a specific subset of a specific generation, namely Nerd Culture. But though its roots can arguably be traced back here, the rise and subsequent normalization of Nerd Culture and the Nerd Culture Agenda is not the real story of the Long 1980s, at least from my perspective, so we're not going to be addressing that here. In terms of pro wrestling in particular, however, there's a thread that leads directly into topics we're going to be talking about imminently, so the Golden Age of Professional Wrestling is relevant to us in the here and now.

Vince McMahon, who transformed the face of pro wrestling.
The story of professional wrestling in the 1980s begins, predictably, with television. With the advent of cable and pay-per-view and a desire to find ways to take advantage of the new medium, it would make sense one of the first places the new media climate would turn to would be wrestling, an old standby of ready-made TV spectacle. The rise of the so-called Golden Age is in many ways a sequence of events extremely suited to the 1980s: Just as the medium of television was beginning to shift, the wrestling business was in the process of being rapidly consolidated by two wildly successful and powerful promoters with lofty ambitions: Vince McMahon and Ted Turner. It's McMahon who is, of course, the most storied and influential figure here. Before taking over the World Wrestling Federation, also known as the WWF, from his father, the company, like all wrestling promotions in the United States, was a regional outfit strictly limited to the Northeast. McMahon was the first promoter to syndicate wresting matches on national television, with which he heavily promoted his recent acquisition of three rising superstar performers: Hulk Hogan, Rowdy Roddy Piper and Jesse Ventura.

McMahon's expansion incensed his colleagues and competitors, who viewed it as a betrayal of the basic fundamental structure of the wrestling community and an overt attempt to muscle in on their territory. It didn't help when McMahon used the proceeds of his pay-per-view events, advertising and video sales to recruit talent from rival promoters, essentially using the streamlined privatization of the WWF to attack other promotions.When McMahon bought out Georgia Championship Wrestling, a subsidiary of the NWA (at the time the largest and most influential cartel in professional wrestling) and attempted to take over their time slot on the local affiliate of TBS, his goals became explicitly clear: To essentially assimilate any possible competition in the WWF. However, as is well known in the wrestling community, McMahon's ambitions are frequently just as often kept in check by stunningly bad business decisions, and this was one of them. McMahon ended up forced to sell the time slot to promoter Jim Crockett, Jr., who immediately set about buying up NWA affiliates of his own.

Crockett's promotion swiftly positioned itself as the WWF's primary corporate rival, and he gained clout with television networks with his wildly popular Starrcade pay-per-view event. McMahon responded by blacklisting any outlet that broadcast Starrcade. While Crockett wielded considerable power, television executives felt it wasn't worth the risk in alienating the extremely lucrative WWF, so by the end of the decade he was forced to sell his entire promotion network to Ted Turner, who dubbed it World Championship Wrestling, or WCW. After Turner appointed Eric Bischoff as WCW's vice president, the WWF's most storied rival in the wrestling business was born. Meanwhile, by 1984 the WWF had introduced its own headlining pay-per-view event when the inaugural WrestleMania was held at Madison Square Garden in New York City where Hulk Hogan faced off against Mr. T in what is likely one of the most iconic, memorable and influential matches in the history of professional wrestling.


Hulk Hogan and Mr. T headlined WrestleMania I.

It's clear a large part of the massive impact the Golden Age of Pro Wrestling had was in the blatant corporatization the field underwent during this period. Vince McMahon's actions are obvious, of course, as he tried to take the role of wrestling promoter and transform it into something more akin to that of a CEO. But it's also important to remember the performers themselves were pop culture icons as well: Everybody knew Rowdy Roddy Piper and, of course, Hulk Hogan and Mr. T, the latter of whom were just as famous for their public appearances, acting careers and sprawling merchandise campaigns (Hulk Hogan's “PastaMania” and the Mr. T line of child's backyard water toys are two of the more memorably risible examples of this I can think of off the top of my head) as they were for their actual wrestling. Wrestlers were no longer simply entertainers, they were proper national celebrities, and furthermore, they were entertainers who were seen to have a significant audience of children, typically boys.

(This, by the way, is likely the revelation that allows us to understand why professional wrestling, in particular the professional wrestling of *this* period, has become so beloved by contemporary Nerd Culture, but this is a subject for another day.)


"PastaMania" was one way Hulk Hogan grew his brand during this period.

But this also informs why the Golden Age was the period where the supposedly-sacrosanct wrestling concept of kayfabe (the famous anagram of “be fake” that describes the philosophy that professional wrestling should always strive to disguise the fact it's choreographed carnie entertainment and not a legitimate sport) began to wane a bit. While no wrestler or promoter would dare break character even during this period, there was the beginning of a sense that there existed a tacit sly acknowledgment that if the audience *wasn't* in on it, they likely should be. Frankly, no-one was going to assume someone like the NWA's Ric Flair, who, upon becoming world champion, would regularly strut around in the ring in sequined designer suits and frilly boas, was doing anything other than putting on an overly flamboyant act, his obvious athletic prowess notwithstanding. The omnipresence of people like Hulk Hogan and Mr. T outside the ring would subconsciously inform the fact that these personalities were versatile actors playing a myriad of different roles (or rather a myriad of variations on one particular one). There was, in other words, a sense of artifice in the spectacle built into the production at every level, which is as much loyal to wrestling's performative roots as it is very, very 1980s.

The Golden Age of Professional Wrestling held many repercussions for a lot of different areas aside from the ones we've mentioned. The most relevant to us, naturally, is the story of how the 1980s wrestling boom spread to Japan and how it manifested there...

Comments

Jacob Nanfito 3 years, 6 months ago

Awesome stuff! A great, compact history of a complex time for pro wrestling. The WWF's ascension revolutionized the business on every level. I think McMahon gets painted as a ruthless conqueror -- destroying and pillaging the sacrosanct territorial system (which had been institutionalized by the NWA cartel of promoters in the 1940s) ... and although Vince Jr. was definitely ambitious, I think he just saw an opportunity and went for it.

He saw that cable TV was a way to quickly go national and circumvent the regional territories, while the old school promoters clung to the notion that TV was only a means of selling tickets to small, regional shows. Any sort of "branding" never occurred to them. Also, it wasn't that Vince "stole" his competitors talent so much as they flocked to the WWE to get that national exposure. In short, the territorial promoters hadn't gotten complacent -- business was conducted in one specific way -- and McMahon saw a new, modern way. He gambled on it big time, got himself labeled a traitor and a heretic within the extremely tight-knit fraternity of wrestling (there are many stories of top NWA members looking to have Vince killed. It sounds ridiculous, but the comparison of the old NWA to the mafia is very apt), but launched wrestling into the mainstream pop culture and, subsequently, pulled the plug on the life support of the territory system.

The wrestling super-show had been a long time staple of regional promotions, but codifying it into a media event, with mainstream celebrities and athletes involved, available to been viewed nationally, was a revelation. WrestleMania changed the game, for sure. Starrcade had actually started the year before WM -- but it was very small potatoes compared to what the WWF pulled off. Oh, and Hogan teamed up with Mr. T in the main event in a tag match against Piper and "Mr. Wonderful" Paul Orndorff.

The 80s was the age of merchandising, and McMahon was the first to launch wresting into action figures, Saturday morning cartoons, video games, and everything you can think of (including ice cream treats). I think is a big reason why WWF firmly took hold of young imaginations, and why 80s WWF nostalgia still has such a pull on pop culture. Also, although Hulk Hogan was, without a doubt, the man behind the brand, I think Capt. Lou Albano was also majorly influential during this time. His appearance in Cyndi Lauper's video for "Girls Just Want to Have Fun": brought wrestling into the domain of MTV -- and the two became linked as the "Rock and Wrestling Connection." Lauper appeared on WWF TV and a huge wrestling card aired on MTV created way more exposure for the WWF -- eventually landing them on NBC. Albano's portrayal of Mario on the Super Mario Bros. cartoon show was the first significant rupture in kayfabe and began its modernization.

Ok, I'd better stop now :)

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Josh Marsfelder 3 years, 6 months ago

Well, I'm glad I didn't totally screw it up!

And thanks for the clarifications and extrapolations-You added a lot more context than I was able to do. In hindsight, maybe I should have asked you to do a guest post on this stuff!

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Jacob Nanfito 3 years, 6 months ago

There's a lot of gray area in the "official" narrative of what happened during this time. Those are the areas that I think are some of the most interesting. The things about wrestling history is that it's told by those who were there -- men and women who make a life of exaggerating and lying. Work from workers. Although these events actually happened, they've been subsumed into lore -- often indistinguishable from storylines, and retold with the agenda of ego, revisionism, entertainment, and self-promotion (some of the cornerstones of wrestling!)

There's a great writer by the name of David Shoemaker aka The Masked Man, who writes about wrestling for Grantland and Deadspin, as well as just published a book called "The Squared Circle," who writes a lot about the semiotic un-reality of wrestling and how it interacts with the reality of the rest of the world. His writings about Andre the Giant, in particular, are really insightful -- he was an actual man who's actual life is indistinguishable from myth. He's a modern mythological figure ... and in my opinion, the WrestleMania 3 match between Hogan and Andre is the WWE's modern creation myth.

Anyhow -- my point is, as the sole survivor of the 90s wrestling war, and the last company that matters in the wrestling business, the WWE (and so Vince) are now firmly in control of wrestling's official history. They publish the books, they put out the dvds, they hire the talking heads. They own the complete tape libraries of ever promotion that mattered .... and through the WWE Network (another Vince revolution in the wrestling/tv business) they tell the story 24/7. So diving the context and digging out multiple ... ummm...truths? .. no, perspectives, I guess, is important to those interested in wrestling's history.

I'm still not sure what this all has to do with Star Trek yet, but I appreciate getting a chance to go on and on about this stuff, and to see wrestling addressed by someone with an eye towards cultural anthropology and comparative mythology.

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Josh Marsfelder 3 years, 6 months ago

Don't worry. I don't expect anyone to figure out what this has to do with Star Trek yet. I just hope I don't start hemorrhaging readers over the next week. But all will become clear shortly, have patience :-)

Though I will say, your account of the lore and misinformation that surrounds the history of professional wrestling could just as easily describe the history of Star Trek: All Officially Sanctioned Master Narratives (those of both CBS and the Trekkers) and regular people elevated to the status of mythological heroes and villains (Gene Roddenberry, Rick Berman).

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Jacob Nanfito 3 years, 6 months ago

Yeah, you're right! I hadn't made that connection. :)

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Adam Riggio 3 years, 5 months ago

A potentially enlightening piece about one aspect of the semiotic legacy of this era of professional wrestling. My cousin, Patrick Boyle, is a professional musician and professor of music theory and performance at University of Victoria. During his graduate studies, he developed an improvisatory style of musical performance. He and one or two companion musicians would practice and assemble a semi-improvised soundtrack to a silent film. He first exhibited this with Buster Keaton's The General, and followed it up with a Halloween exhibition of Murnau's Nosteratu.

The third film he did this for was the central fight of Wrestlemania 3. They played the sound for a series of clips showing the absurdly theatrical segments depicting the break and growing rivalry of Andre and Hulk. Then the sound died down, and the improvised music played over the match itself. They made it into the tragic story of a deep gay love doomed by ambition and selfishness.

What was the point of this performance in a room at the Memorial University music school in St. John's NL in 2007? I have absolutely no idea. But it is a curious way that the conceptual and popular legacy of the WWF continued to percolate today. And perhaps it expresses undercurrents that were always strangely implicit to the imagery of Wrestlemania from the start.

It was undoubtedly beautiful.

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bbqplatypus318 3 years, 5 months ago

That sounds truly glorious.

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Jacob Nanfito 3 years, 5 months ago

That does sound awesome! And wonderfully appropriate, as the wrestling match itself is a collaborative improvisation, in many ways strikingly similar to how musicians would improve a piece of music together.

They picked a great match/angle to score, as well ... the whole buildup between Hulk and Andre towards WM 3 is one of the most perfectly executed wrestling storylines of all time.

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Daru 3 years, 5 months ago

I am not really into wrestling, but as a kid in the Saturday late afternoon run-up to watching Doctor Who I would watch British wrestling on ITV (The BBC's rival channel). It was a raucous and sometime blatantly silly affair but as a kid I loved it (a bit like Wrath of Khan then?). In the 70's and 80's British wrestling was populated by figures such as Big Daddy who was the alter ego of Shirley Crabtree and Giant Haystacks.

Just like with Wrath of Khan my interest waned as I grew up - but thanks for the insight into other aspects I have never watched (and probably won't), its been illuminating!

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