Ringside Remembrances: 45 Years of Wrestling Change
Jay Shannon draws upon five decades as a wrestling fan to look at the past, present and future of professional wrestling.
“Knock on the sky and listen to the sound” — Zen Buddhist philosophical saying
Not too long ago, someone asked me how long I’ve been watching wrestling. My mom had told me, when I visited her in Texas, that my grandfather and great-uncle introduced me to this great sport when I was 3 years old. Doing a little quick math, it dawned on me that I will celebrate my 45th year as a fan, this year. (Yep, I’m getting seriously old). A lot of things have changed in the five decades that I’ve sat and watched the men and women do their thing. I really wanted to look at some of the major changes. Most of them are good, a few aren’t. I’ll give my thoughts if the change was a positive, a negative or just neutral.
In the 60s and 70s, pro wrestling was pretty much a “Closed Shop”. A future pro would almost always have to be scouted by an established performer or promoter. That person would then disappear into training, emerging a short time later as a new star. By the 80s, that system was on the way out. Soon there were top notch training facilities all across North America, including: The Hart Dungeon (Canada), Dory Funk Jr.’s Funkin’ Dojo (Florida), The Monster Factory (New Jersey),Team 3D Academy (Florida) and the Ballard Brothers’ Kayfabe College (California). These schools teach not only wrestling moves, but also complete physical fitness. The stars hitting the rings these days are, for the most part, are at peak condition. These students also learn the philosophy of the industry. Having worked, for a short time, as a character developer for a now-defunct school, in Reno, I can appreciate how difficult becoming a wrestler can be.
As I type this, I’m sitting here in my D-X T-Shirt that I bought at a live event, several years ago. When I first started attending wrestling matches, souvenirs were basically limited to 8×10 glossy photos that you might be able to have autographed. Most of my 8x10s are gone now but I had them all: Fritz Von Erich, The Fabulous Freebirds, John Hawk (later JBL), Bruiser Brody (I miss that one the most) and a dozen or so others. The WWE was the true leader of expanding merchandising. Action figures, clothing, video tapes and discs, posters and a multitude of other assorted goodies were available for sale. Yes, I even tried the infamous Ice Cream Bars. Some have said the sport has become too commercial and all this “junk” is just manipulating the fans and, often, their parents. I tend to disagree. I took quite a few business classes, during my college days, and the merchandising model is solid. Multiple flows of income is the best plan to make a business solid.
Effect: Neutral, slightly towards the positive
For the first 15 years of my time watching wrestling, I was restricted to whatever ran on the local Dallas, TX channels. I loved watching all the great people from the World Class area. Everything changed in the Spring of 1983. My grandfather (with whom I lived) finally decided to bring cable television into the home. Suddenly, I got to see Bob Backlund, the Road Warriors, the Four Horsemen, Nick Bockwinkle, Hulk Hogan and hundreds of others. The borders were also opened and I got my first fun experience of watching multiple Lucha Libre shows, in Spanish.
The production values of the weekly shows also skyrocketed. While World Class was one of the first to utilize multiple cameras and in-ring angles, the then-WWF and NWA took it to levels that Fritz Von Erich could only dream of.
Television even became a part of my wrestling dream, a couple of years back. A local wrestling show, in Reno, needed a new play-by-play announcer. I got the chance to step in and join my friend, Don Mega, to announce 13 episodes of a show called PWD Primetime. TV has come a long way from the old black and white set in my little living room in Irving, Texas.
Wrestling has always been storyline based. However, early wrestling storylines were often very limited. A huge reason for that was the Journeyman Effect. In the 50s to 80s, wrestlers frequently moved from one territory to another on a regular basis. So many men and women moved around, it was difficult to set a very deep storyline.
By the mid-80s, several large groups (WWF, NWA, AWA, World Class, etc…) began to expand. As performers signed on for multi-year contracts, the storylines were able to be fleshed out. Unfortunately, some of the storylines went very dark. Kidnapping, simulated murder (Paul Bearer “buried” in cement), drug abuse, gang activity, all manners of sexual deviations, and other things to creepy to even discuss. There have also been some very positive storylines, as well. John Cena and Triple H overcoming horrific injuries to rise back to the top. A few of the storylines were just plain silly. Remember D-X dropping manure on the McMahons? How about the birth of Mr. Socko? This category rides both sides of the positive/negative fence.
I’m starting to be in the minority of those that remember a life before home computers. My three step-grandsons look at me like I have three heads when I mention getting my first laptop. It was a Tandy 1000. It had no hard drive, a ridiculously slow processor and was outrageously heavy. I have upgraded, regularly, over the past 25 years or so.
Professional Wrestling embraced the growing Internet market. Even the smallest of wrestling groups have their presence known on the World Wide Web. Fans that can’t get shows like Ring of Honor or other assorted programming can now watch videos from places like Japan, the United Kingdom, Australia and other assorted destinations. The internet has allowed me to make friends in England, Germany, Poland, New Zealand and nearly every state in the union. The world has opened up thanks to this little box.
Obviously, the Internet has allowed me to express my strange viewpoints on life, the universe and such. For the better part of a decade, I’ve been typing to all of you. Thank you for being there to read my thoughts.
On a side note, the Internet led me to the two women that have shared life with me, Linda and Dianna. Linda always referred to the Internet as “Boxworld”. The whole world could be shrunken down and presented in a 19” screen (give or take the size of the monitor).
Financial Costs of watching a live event
Tickets to a wrestling show, back in the day, were very inexpensive. A whole family could go to the matches and have a nice dinner without having to risk breaking the bank. Today, most larger shows are going to set an average family back several hundred dollars. Pay-per-views have reached $60, down slightly from last year’s $ 80. Drinks are running at $5. Snacks are even higher up. The t-shirt that I got at the live event set me back $25 (and that was over five years ago). It is getting more and more difficult for a family to enjoy wrestling, live. While the production costs have risen, sharply, the fans are being forced to be much more selective in what they order or attend. I’ve dropped from 4-5 shows a year to one.
My aunt, Wanda, gave me my first wrestling video tap. It was a copy of Wrestlemania III (which I still have). Over the years, I’ve collected over a hundred videos and DVDs (and now Blu-Rays) of my favorite sport. Not only do I have dozens of WCW and TNA titles, but also numerous programs from smaller groups. The video market, while occasionally pricey, allows the fan to check out great action from around the world. These wonderful tapes/discs allow us to keep a moment of time frozen forever. Watch the Hall of Fame ceremony for the Von Erichs and you can see a 13-year old version of me. It allows me to step back 35 years and share a shy, introverted kid with those in my family that didn’t know me. Thousands of fans have those kinds of memories in their collections, as well.
All things evolve. Wrestling is no different. The days of Bruno Sammartino, Fritz Von Erich and Duke Keomuka may be my favorites but we all grow up and become new people. Like with people, we always hope that what we become is better than what we were. I like to smile and think that wrestling is, for the most part, much better than it used to be.