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…