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History 13 - The Role of the Showmen

Showmen have been around wrestling from the very beginning, even if the style has changed dramatically (pun intended).

Martin Burns, known as “Farmer Burns,” was one of the greatest wrestlers of all time. He discovered Frank Gotch in 1900 and taught him all he knew. Burns is considered by many old-timers to be the greatest instructor of all time in the pro ranks — the Dan Gable of the professional set. He claimed to have wrestled over 6,000 matches between 1895 and 1920, losing just six of them.

Being a smaller man of 165 pounds, he knew it was to his advantage to build up a “tough guy” aura around himself. In his peak wrestling years, he was known to walk into a group of wrestling enthusiasts with an anvil tied to his neck, and perform stunts like doing a hangman’s drop off a horse, showing he could not be hanged.

As tough as they came on the mat, Burns was also knew the value of creating a sense of drama for the wrestling fans. But he could back up anything he said or did with true wrestling skills.

As the sporting fans of the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s began to demand more and more excitement from their athletic stars, professional wrestling had to make the adjustment, or die off. While many great amateur wrestlers found a home in professional wrestling through the decades, they had to compete for billing with a new breed of men who couldn’t wrestle at all. These newcomers came from other sports  — or had no sports background at all — but found a home for their showboating antics.

The first of the showmen came from college football — men like Wayne Munn of Nebraska, Gus Sonnenberg of Dartmouth and Jumping Joe Savoldi of Notre Dame. They were followed by big, tough men eager to make a buck, some with very little athletic background to recommend them. And in the 1980s, the long line included iron pumpers and bodybuilders, men who looked terrific but really couldn’t wrestle at all. But, they weren’t there to wrestle, they were there to put on a show.

Though Lou Thesz held the “pure” showmen in a certain disdain, he admitted that the best of them, men like Gorgeous George in the 1940s and Buddy Rogers in the 1950s, created big paydays for him and other straight wrestlers.

Gorgeous George was originally a low-level wrestler named George Wagner, and was going nowhere fast when he hit upon the idea of bleaching his hair and wearing it long, in curls. He entered the ring in a long, following robe, attended by a valet, who would spray the ring to kill the germs as George watched with a haughty air, and the fans roared their disapproval. Arriving just as television was getting hot, he became a media superstar. He sold out arenas all over the world and became a household name in the late 1940s. Even major movie stars came to see him perform.

He was quickly followed by a long string of gimmick wrestlers, foremost among whom were Gene “Mr. America” Stanlee and “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers. They were all very good at turning up the heat (exciting the crowd).

“George Wagner could wrestle pretty well,” said Thesz, “But he never could draw a fan until he became Gorgeous George.

“On the other hand, Rogers couldn’t wrestle a lick,” said Thesz. “But he was a genius at bringing on the heat, probably the best we ever saw. He made all of us a lot of money.”

Rogers, whose real name was Herman Rhodes, learned to strut in the ring and boast to the announcers. He had a smug attitude that drove fans crazy, and they paid big money to come see him get beaten in the ring. But most of the time, he would use some sneaky move to defeat the clean-cut hero, and the enraged fans would pay again the next time in the hopes of seeing him get whipped. Rogers refined the “bad boy” gimmick so that he became the biggest draw in the business in the late 1950s, even though he didn’t know how to wrestle at all.

He angered Thesz once when they were traveling together in a car on a long road trip between engagements and he made some disparaging things about Ed Lewis. Thesz greatly admired Lewis and used him as a booking agent and trainer when Lou was the NWA heavyweight champion of the world. It was a way for Thesz to spend more time with Lewis and to pay Ed back for all he had done for the sport.

 Rogers made a comment like, “Aw, who needs him? He’s just a washed-up old champ.”

Lou was furious. “We are in this business today because of the work of Ed Lewis and others like him,” said Thesz. From that moment on, Thesz held Rogers in contempt and liked to work him over a little every time they were in the ring together. Thesz was a man who fully understood where professional wrestling came from and who its key players were. He idolized Ed Lewis and he was fiercely loyal to him, even after Lewis had passed from the scene.

In an article for the CAC newsletter, historian Scott Teal described the Thesz-Rogers relationship as it was in 1963:

“When Buddy Rogers won the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) version of the world heavyweight title from Pat O’Connor on June 30, 1961, Rogers’ booking were controlled by WWWF promoters Vince McMahon, Sr., and Toots Mondt. When NWA promoters found it almost impossible to get bookings with Rogers for title defenses in their territories, NWA President Sam Muchnick talked Lou Thesz out of semi retirement, hoping to force a title match between Rogers and Thesz.

“After Rogers feigned injuries and missed a couple of scheduled matches against Thesz, Muchnick threatened to donate Rogers’ $25,000 bond to charity if he failed to show up for a title defense in Toronto, Ontario, on January 14, 1963. This was the night when Thesz repeated the famous line that Strangler Lewis used during a 1930s world title match with Ed Don George — ‘Rogers, we can do this the hard way or the easy way.’ Buddy wisely chose the easy way and lost the title.”

In 1997, Thesz and Rogers were among the headliners in a huge wrestling memorabilia show in New York City. There were several hundred fans lingering in the huge hotel lobby when Thesz came striding in. He was wearing a tan jumpsuit and carrying his steel traveling case and, though in his mid 70s, looked like he could step into the ring and take on anyone there. Fans gasped and pointed at him as he moved past them on his way to the autograph signing area. Later that night, he was sitting at a table with two friends in the restaurant area when Rogers, sitting at another table across the way, spotted him. Rogers was smoking a big cigar and chatting with a dozen or so friends and fans.

Rogers immediately got up and came over to where Thesz was sitting, smiling and asking Thesz to join him and the others. Thesz was polite but refused the invitation, which Rogers issued several times. As Rogers walked away, Thesz turned to one of those at his table, and said, “I don’t like the guy. Why would I go over there and watch him hold court?”

Another great star of the 1950s was Argentina Rocca, a tremendously impressive physical specimen who could turn on a crowd like magic. A powerfully-built Italian who was raised in Argentina, Rocca was an accomplished rugby player when he was spotted by a tour of touring American pros. Seeing the potential, they brought him to America in the late 1940s.

With a huge Italian and South American population in New York City, Rocca became a mega star. He would jog down the aisle and leap over the top rope into the ring, prancing around barefoot. Then he would execute a series of leaps and cartwheels, topping it off with a spread-eagle, touching his toes with his hands as he leaped high into the air, legs outstretched in two directions.

Rocca became a sensation all over the country. He slapped foes in the face with his feet and was known for his finishing hold, called a backbreaker.

Like Rogers, he couldn’t wrestle a lick. But he was a huge attraction, even appearing on the cover of a Superman comic book and having his own record album and self-defense booklets. Whenever he tangled with Verne Gagne or Lou Thesz, it was an automatic sellout.

Rogers and Rocca were the perfect examples of what Lou Thesz meant when he wrote in 1993:

“A great pro wrestler was never determined by the best two out of three falls. Greatness was determined by the fans, how many would pay to see him again! The difference when I came into the business was that we still had respect for each other based one two out of three falls. Today, no one, promoters, fans or pro wrestlers, cares or even knows.”

Certainly, many of the early day pro stars understood the value of promoting themselves and their sport, just like Muhammad Ali did in the 1960s when the fast-talking boxing champ became the best-known sports personality in the entire world. In fact, Ali often said that he developed his promotional style while watching pro wrestling as a teenager in Louisville, Kentucky.

 Wrestlers like William Muldoon, Evan Lewis, George Hackenschmidt and even Frank Gotch were keenly aware of the promotional side of the sport, and were as eager to attract big crowds as to demolish their opposition. Gotch, in particular took great pride in his ability to attract large numbers everywhere he went but he was determined to do it through the power of his straight wrestling performance, not theatrics. The same was true of Caddock and Stecher; in fact, neither of them had hardly any showman qualities at all.

Pro wrestling had to make huge adjustments to survive in the economic playing field, and it did it many times… with the result being that pure wrestling ability faded from the scene, to the point where it no longer mattered at all.

For a wide range of gift shops items — including books, posters, videos and trading cards for wrestling — be sure and check the web site of the International Wrestling Institute and Museum (641-791-1517) in Newton, Iowa. The web site is: www.wrestlingmuseum.org

Story By Mike Chapman, Newton Iowa

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