1983 was the year. I was working my first job as a porter in a bowling alley. One of my many duties was to carry the full and empty beer kegs, as well as the soda mini-kegs to and from storage to the bar. The wide-screen (for its time) television over the bar was always on. One afternoon, as I was hauling trash, kegs and whatever else needed hauling I caught sight of something familiar-professional wrestling on the screen.
This was unusual as the manager of the place, along with most of the patrons dismissed wrestling as "fake", "phony" or "dumbass". Yet there they were-about 20 guys, including my manager, transfixed watching wrestling. As it turned out, it was the birth of the syndicated wrestling show in our area (New England) and the show that had everyone transfixed was World Class Championship Wrestling from Dallas, TX. The match in progress at the time was an undercard match that featured José "Supersock" Lothario against newcomer "Gorgeous" Jimmy Garvin. The quote that is the title for this article came from the mouth of my manager after watching Lothario scoop Garvin up and deposit him on his knee in a version of the Billy Robinson backbreaker.
I was well aware of what was happening in WCCW, but I had never seen them on tape or live until that period in time. I too was somewhat transfixed by what I saw. To be quite blunt, the camerawork, angles, action, and colorfulness of the wrestlers that I saw on that day (for a few brief minutes before my manager ordered me to get back to work) made "my" wrestling-WWF wrestling-look …well….sick by comparison. The wrestling, upon which I was raised, suddenly looked slow, old and…dare I say it? -a bit phony.
Such was my initiation into the world of cable television and later the Internet in terms of wrestling coverage. The world became a much smaller place because of those two mediums of communication. Suddenly, you literally had the world at your fingertips. The wrestling exposure thanks to cable coverage became an explosion in size and speed. Very soon, you could watch almost any show that had a contract with a cable provider.
Sadly, the downside of all that instant exposure was instant exposure.
Territories which magazine writers had touted as being fantastic looked cheap, or clownish or even farcical by comparison to the powerhouse shows that were coming out of Georgia Championship Wrestling, Mid South Wrestling , WCCW, and St. Louis. Everyone loves their home territory, and rightfully so. But to be honest, when I finally saw footage of Central States, San Antonio, Portland, Alabama, and Knoxville-all places that I had read about in the magazines for years as hotbeds of professional wrestling…well they simply didn't measure up. True, each territory had its own strengths and weaknesses, but some places had far more of one than the other-and it showed by comparison to other territories.
In retrospect, it is simple to see why the WWF expansion that began a few years later found the pickings to be easy. Most television shows that I saw looked like time had stopped in the 1960's. Small, studio audiences of many 50 people on bleachers watching a slow and plodding style of wrestling that had been in vogue twenty years prior, but by the 1980's was looking remarkably ancient. Compare that to the fast-paced action of Mid Atlantic Championship Wrestling or the rabid excitement of crowds from Dallas; Sportatorium, or the slick and state-of-the-art production values of the WWF shows. It is easy to see how long time fans could be swayed to something that simply looked better than what they were used to seeing. It is interesting to note that the place where the WWF had the most difficulty in establish a fan base were the same places who had abandoned the 1960's style of presenting wrestling for a more modern concept. Places like Memphis, Mid South, Dallas, The Carolinas, and Georgia all withstood the popularity of the WWF until factors that had little to nothing to do with the quality of the product made most of these territories implode.
Some had seen the signs and ignored them. Those promoters through ignorance, capriciousness or simply ego soon went out of business, or lost everything that they had earned while fighting an eventual losing battle. Others had seen the signs and chose to get out while they could. The LeBell family sold their promotion of Southern California to Vincent K. McMahon very early-around 1982. The Sheik's Detroit promotion had already imploded and Toronto's Tunney family made the choice to align early on with the WWF as well. These people saw what was ahead and simply made the wise decision to not try and fight a growing juggernaut.
But NONE of this could have happened without the advent in popularity of cable television. The amount of time and effort that it would have taken Vince McMahon to convert every, single local television station to WWF programming would have been a fool's mission. While Vince, did go after local stations, he also wisely focused on the fact that while KPLR in St. Louis had long been the wrestling outlet for Sam Muchnick, he also realized that by getting a berth on the USA Network, he could access twenty times as many viewers (at that time) as he could by simply pursuing St. Louis. Cable television was the biggest ally that Vince McMahon could have wanted.
So now, decades later, the question remains: Was the advent and spread of cable television a good thing or a bad thing for the professional wrestling industry? Clearly, for the quality programs that existed, the added viewership and visibility meant more opportunity to make great profit. Georgia Championship Wrestling made loads of money by running shows in the West Virginia-Michigan-Ohio area due to the exposure that Superstation WTBS had in that region. World Class Championship Wrestling was able to make semi-regular tours of New England, Oklahoma, Louisiana and even the Middle East due to its television exposure. The WWF became what it is today on the back of its television programs. On the other hand, wrestling promotions that had existed for decades, and whose fans were quite happy with the product (as they had nothing with which to compare), were run quickly out of business because of cable and the ensuing competition from territories and companies that didn't even promote in their geographic area. Other companies went in and out of business so frequently (Portland comes to mind after the retirement of Don Owen, as do the Hawaiian Islands, and the Mississippi area) that eventually they wore out their welcome and killed wrestling in their area.
So what is the final verdict? Without the exposure of cable television, I am certain that there would still be many wrestling territories around our country, and as a result, many more people making a living in the wrestling business. However, there also would be no mass exposure, so things that fans of the current product take for granted-websites, tons of merchandise, national and world tours and mainstream media exposure via movies and television shows-would more than likely not exist. The gigantic salaries that some wrestlers make today also would not exist. The opportunity for crossover stars such as The Rock, or lately, Batista would also not exist. Wrestling would still be viewed as a poor cousin to vaudeville, and the circus.
This is one question for which I have no clear answer or opinion. How about you?
By Harry Grover
As unique content strictly for the Professional Wrestling Historical Society