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History 15 - Pro Wrestling Makes Biggest Change

With the arrival of Vince McMahon Jr. on the scene in the early 1980s, professional wrestling was headed for a huge change. For decades the pro game had been divided into territories operated by independent promoters, but McMahon brought a new vision.

His dad, Vince Sr., had been one of a group of successful regional promoters of the 1950-1970 era and Vince Jr. had studied the profession closely during his growing up years.  In 1983, Vince Jr. bought his dad’s territory in the Northeast part of the country and immediately set out to turn the regional property into a national industry

McMahon succeeded by a variety of revolutionary methods, but the main two were this: First, combing the game with rock-and-roll music stars to market the events, and secondly, going to national television. Celebrities like Cyndi Lauper, Mr. T and even Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson were paid to appear at various events. Stars like Tina Turner, Billy Crystal and Diane Keaton showed up at ringside just to watch the action. The appearances of such well-known show business people and athletes intrigued the executives at the national networks.

US magazine, in a 1985 issue, said the key to pro wrestling’s huge success was Lauper and the resulting coverage on MTV.

“Lauper, who was trying to grind out publicity for her own career, started taking part in the mock mayhem. Kids followed her, switching from MTV to cable’s grappling extravaganza…. now, the mat wars have a leglock on America’s head.”

Sports Illustrated April 29, 1985

McMahon’s biggest star was a former guitar player named Terry Bollea. He got his start in Verne Gagne’s AWA, and was anything but a natural wrestler. Working under various names, including Sterling Golden, Bollea was little more than an opening act. But he eventually changed his name to Hulk Hogan and soon after was selected by Sylvester Stallone to play a wrestling villain in the movie “Rocky III.”

As the huge Thunderlips in “Rocky III,” the scowling Hogan towered over Stallone’s character and was an immediate sensation. HulkMania was born almost overnight!

Suddenly, pro wrestling was hot. Very hot. Week after week, McMahon’s events were the top four rated shows on cable television. In certain metro areas, pro wrestling even placed in the top five of all shows, including the three major networks.

“The man doing most of the manipulating is McMahon, who has given wrestling the upscale demographics — or the illusion of same  — it never had before,” said Sports Illustrated, which put Hulk Hogan on the cover of its April 29, 1985 issue, with a headline that blared, MAT MANIA! “McMahon is despised by pro wrestling purists and by rival promoters for turning wrestling into schlock and roll, but others see him as a visionary.”

McMahon’s biggest stroke of marketing genius came on March 31 of 1985 when he sold out Madison Square Garden for an event — and it was beamed live to 200 closed circuit locations around the country. The event was called WrestleMania and it was a long home run.

“As a concept, WrestleMania proved to be the direct descendant of the Evel Knievel Snake River Canyon jump,” said Sports Illustrated. “Which is to say, one of the biggest media events in the gassy history of hype. McMahon’s promotional work for WrestleMania was brilliant, successfully propagating the Big Lie that wrestling had somehow become the new barometer of hip for the ‘80s.”

Pro wrestling was everywhere. It was on the cover of national magazines like US and Sports Illustrated; it was written about in glowing terms by the nation’s largest newspapers; MTV played it to the hilt and it made copy for entertainment TV shows from coast to coast. There was a Hulk Hogan cartoon series on national television and toy figures were produced by the millions, sold in every major outlet in America. Hogan even starred in a few movies, as did Jesse Ventura, another of the WWF heroes.

Ted Turner, owner of the Turner Broadcasting Network, jumped into the business in 1988 and began operating a company known as the WCW. For over a decade it competed with the WWF owned by Vince McMahon. A fabulously wealthy man, Turner was able to build a prosperous company and pro wrestling grew bigger than ever, with two huge companies and constant television exposure to provide the hype. In addition, a number of much smaller, independent wrestling companies continued to survive by carving out a small niche in regional territories.

As the result of the hype, a new breed of star came into the business. What sold best to the new, young marketplace were huge bodies and wild TV interviews. Wrestling “matches” were very short and very violent. In this new world of make believe, wrestling skills were totally unimportant. Legends like Lou Thesz, Dick Hutton and Dan Hodge watched helplessly from the sidelines as McMahon’s heroes sky-rocketed to cult-star status.

“At this point, it was an entirely new world,” said Thesz. “What had come before, decades before, no longer mattered at all. Wrestling ability was no longer a consideration whatsoever in making a star or a champion.”

Eventually, McMahon bought out the WCW and became the single most powerful force in pro wrestling history. The keys to his staggering successes were (1) his courage to go into unchartered waters, (2) his tenacity, (3) his vision, and (4) the people he hired to help run the organization behind the scenes. . Having lots of money didn’t hurt, either, but to his credit Vince Jr. took what he had and made it into a much larger fortune.

Vince McMahon Jr. changed the face of pro wrestling in ways no one else could have imagined. In 2002, he even admitted publicly that what his organization offered was not athletic competition at all but was, of course, strictly entertainment. The famous WWF (World Wrestling Federation) changed its name and became the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment).

Even though the top stars in the WWF and WWC were non-wrestlers like Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant and The Ultimate Warrior, there was still a tiny place for amateur wrestlers to participate. Backlund retired in the mid 1980s but made a comeback in the 1990s, and former collegiate wrestlers like Steve “Dr. Death” Williams (University of Oklahoma) and Mike Rotunda (Syracuse) carved out a niche for themselves in the mid 1980s and early 1990s.

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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