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History 14 - Pro Wrestling in the 1970s

Professional wrestling has reinvented itself several times, from the era of Frank Gotch and Earl Caddock in the 1905-1920 period to the era of Hulk Hogan and Stone Cold Austin in the 1980s and beyond! But until the 1980s, the game still had some semblance of real wrestling. How it changed as it did, and why, is a long and fascinating story.

Worked (fake) matches have always been on the scene, even as far back as the early 1900s, but there were still shoots (real) for the big title matches throughout the decades. It is difficult to be certain, but the last title change based on a shoot match may have come in 1957. That’s when Dick Hutton, the former three-time NCAA champion from Oklahoma State, faced a wrestler that the NWA (National Wrestling Alliance) bosses intended to make the new champ when Lou Thesz stepped down. Thesz was tired and wanted to take a break from the daily grind of being champion. Often, the champion would be expected to wrestle 250 to 300 matches a year, crisscrossing the country to meet the demands of promoters who wanted “the world heavyweight champion” in their city.

To replace Thesz, the NWA brass selected a well-known pro (with some amateur background) who could draw good crowds consistently. But Thesz balked, saying he would only give the title to one man — Hutton.

A wrestle-off, or shoot, was set up in the promoter’s offices in Ohio between Hutton and the NWA’s handpicked successor to Thesz. Hutton won easily and the promoters backed down. Subsequently, in a worked match with Thesz on November 14, 1957, Hutton was given the highly-coveted NWA title in Toronto.

Gotch, Caddock, Stecher and Ed Lewis were men who could really wrestle, and pace themselves for two-hour long matches. They were the real deal, any way you wanted to cut it. In their footsteps came a long list of amateur greats who decided to try professional wrestling, and many of them became champions of some sort.

But in the 1930s and ‘40s the skill of working a match to make it look real overtook the ability to wrestle a real match. Lou Thesz admitted that by the mid 1950s, the ability to draw a crowd was a more important quality for a pro wrestler than wrestling ability.

“A great pro wrestler was never determined by the best two out of three falls,” he wrote in 1993. “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.”

While that is certainly true, there were still some pro wrestlers in the 1960 to 1980 era with solid amateur backgrounds and who were proud of those credentials. Dan Hodge and Jack Brisco were the best of the new breed, but there were many others.

Bob Marella was NCAA runnerup at heavyweight for Ithaca College in 1959 and was a huge sensation in the pro ranks as Gorilla Monsoon, first as a wrestler then for many years as an announcer and WWF official. Jim Raschke was a Big Eight champion at heavyweight for the University of Nebraska and won three AAU national titles in Greco-Roman in the 1960s. He placed third in the 1963 World Championships, and then turned pro. He enjoyed a very successful career as the arch villain, Baron Von Raschke.

Bob Roop, a member of the 1968 Olympic team, and Greg Wojciechowski, NCAA heavyweight champion for University of Toledo in 1971, also were pro wrestlers for many years. Evan Johnson, NCAA champion for Minnesota in 1976 and a member of the 1976 Olympic team, and Laurent Soucie, All-American for Wisconsin, gave it a try, as did Jim Shields, an All-American for Oklahoma State at heavyweight.

Attended by considerable publicity, Chris Taylor also turned professional. After two years of junior college, Taylor had gone to Iowa State University and claimed two NCAA titles at heavyweight. Weighing 450 pounds, he complied a record of 87-0-1 with 70 pins as a Cyclone and also won a bronze medal in the 1972 Olympics in Munich. Taylor signed with up the AWA and Verne Gagne, but he didn’t last long in the pro ranks. The heavy travel schedule, combined with the physical rigors, were too much for The Gentle Giant and he left the ring after less than two years.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, pro wrestling was still in a transition period between the styles of the 1950s (when wrestling ability still would be showcased somewhat in the ring) and the wild hybrid form that was waiting on the horizon.

Bob Backlund

And two of the most successful wrestlers in that transition period were from the same college, North Dakota State University in Fargo.

Bob Backlund was Division II NCAA champion at 190 pounds for North Dakota State in 1971 and went into the pro ranks almost immediately. His clean-cut good looks made him a popular star in the East and he became WWF world heavyweight champion in 1978, beginning a long and successful run. Backlund was one of the last WWF champions before the advent of Hulk Hogan and the resulting explosion of popularity for the WWF (now the WWE). He was finally moved aside in 1983.

“I was told I wasn’t worth marketing,” Backlund said in an article in Sports Illustrated in 1985. His nice-guy image and boyish looks weren’t what the new owner of the WWF was looking for to make pro wrestling a media sensation.

Four years after Backlund won his national title for North Dakota State, Brad Rheingans won the same weight class for the same school. But Brad didn’t turn pro immediately; instead, he embarked upon a sensational career in Greco-Roman wrestling. He won a total of seven national titles in that style, and placed third in the World Championships in 1979, at 220 pounds. He was fourth in the 1976 Olympics and was favored to capture America’s first ever Greco-Roman medal in the Olympics in 1980. But he and the other American athletes had to watch from the sidelines as President Carter announced the U.S. would boycott the Moscow Olympics.

Brad Rheingans

Joining Verne Gagne’s AWA, Rheingans wrestled professionally for 14 years, capturing a number of regional titles. He and Ken Patera, a member of the 1976 Olympic weightlifting team, were world tag team champions for a year. After injuries forced him from the ring, Brad became a top trainer, as well as a booker for New Japan.

“It’s two different worlds, completely,” said Rheingans in 2004. “Amateur wrestling is such a pure sport with true skills and techniques of one kind. Pro wrestling is entertainment, but there are a completely different set of skills and techniques that need to be learned, just as in amateur wrestling.”

 Though the emphasis on amateur skills was fast disappearing in the 1980s, Brad said there was still a great deal of respect given to the real wrestlers by most of the workers and actors. “Some times you had to earn it by showing those guys what would happen if they wanted to really wrestle,” he said with a chuckle.

Both Brad Rheingans and Jim Raschke are members of the George Tragos/Lou Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame Fame. The hall is located in the International Wrestling Institute and Museum in Newton, Iowa. Only pro wrestlers with a strong amateur background (or who could really wrestle) are considered.

The pro wrestling of the 1970s and early 1980s was still similar to that of the previous three decades. But something huge was about to explode onto the scene and the image of pro wrestling would take a drastic turn away from real wrestling to total show business.

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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