One of the more bittersweet experiences for an aging wrestling fan is to find video footage of the territory in which they were raised. In my case, that territory was mainly the W.W.W.F., as operated by Vincent J. McMahon. Every Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon without fail, I would plop myself in front of our black and white television set, adjust the UHF receiver so that I could get a somewhat clear picture and wait excitedly for the wrestling show that week.
My experiences were no different than any child of the territorial era growing up. Whether you watched Mid Atlantic Championship Wrestling in Virginia, AWA Gagne All Star Wrestling from Minnesota, or any of the dozens of local and regional wrestling shows that were broadcast in that era. The weekends were where you caught up on everything important in terms of professional wrestling. We didn't rate matches with stars, we didn't talk about work-rate, pushes or any of the other topics that have become standard topics of discussion today. Back then, all we cared about was if our heroes won, and if there was someone new to the company-hero or villain-that piqued our interest, or perhaps a new drama unfolding.
That is why some 46 years after I watched my first wrestling match on television in 1968 (Johnny Rodz vs. Pete Sanchez in a two-out-of-three fall match, followed by The Kentucky Butcher (John Quinn) taking on the WWWF Champion-Bruno Sammartino), watching footage of WWWF wrestling is somewhat bittersweet. The innocence is gone. So are the blinders.
As a child, every match is a great match; every villain is the epitome of evil; every hero is exactly the type of guy that you want to be as an adult. In short, there was nothing better than watching that perfect hour of wrestling-or even better-going to a live show. Reality and increased knowledge have a way of destroying many childhood "truths". Watching footage from WWWF television now, I see so much that I never saw as a child-and most of what I see is not positive.
Like many kids (and adults), my favorite wrestler was Chief Jay Strongbow. If you never got to see the Chief wrestle live, you missed a unique experience. Only in wrestling could an Italian-American from Philadelphia work as a Cherokee in the wrestling ring. Only a great performer who truly embodied his character could get a crowd of thousands-WASPS, African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, etc. of all ages to simultaneously start war-whooping in their best imitation of what they thought Native Americans sounded like in battle. Only a true pro could get the crowd to explode when he delivered a simple kneelift and did a dance that more resembled a housewife stomping ants than an actual, ceremonial display. It was great! But in retrospect, it doesn't look so great.
Strongbow was actually a veteran wrestler by the name of Joe Scarpa. Scarpa was a tremendous technician in the ring-far different from the dancing strutting, sleeperhold producing Strongbow which he later became. Scarpa was so skilled that N.W.A. World Champion Jack Brisco credited Scarpa with turning him from an amateur to a professional while they worked as a tag team in Florida for Eddie Graham and Cowboy Luttrell.
By the time Scarpa made it to the WWWF in the early 1970's, he was middle-aged, starting to show some excess body tissue (i.e. fat) and slowing down. Vincent J. McMahon had just lost his main "Indian" stars-Chief White Owl and Chief Big Heart-and was searching for a replacement. McMahon made contact with Scarpa through Gorilla Monsoon and after watching tapes of Chief Big Heart, Joe Scarpa emerged as Chief Jay Strongbow. (The similarities in style between Big Heart and Strongbow are evident-although Strongbow went further with the character than Big Heart ever did.)
As previously stated, Strongbow grabbed the imagination of the fans and was an immediate success. So beloved was Strongbow that over a decade later when he was working as a road agent for the W.W.F., his appearance at ringside would elicit war whoops and chants of "Chief!" But watching his matches today takes willpower. In retrospect, Strongbow did next-to-nothing in the ring. In an age where old school fans love to proclaim that "our matches were always different-not the same match over-and-over like in today's Sports Entertainment"-it is very evident that Strongbow wrestled the same match every time. Some fancy footwork to start the match, bad mouthing his opponent, taking a beating from the heel (ALWAYS) with the dreaded "nerve hold" applied to the trapezius muscles (now known as a rest hold), the little shuffle step around the ring as his opponent kept the pressure applied, and finally the war dance-followed by several kneelifts and the sleeperhold finish. Every, single, match was the same. His stuff is so hard to watch because it just looks so…obvious.
SIDE NOTE: It is very clear by watching Strongbow's comebacks, that Hulk Hogan's "Hulking Up" owes a great deal of gratitude to Strongbow. Take away the war dance and Strongbow's comebacks were exactly what Hogan used when he made his comebacks.
So why is that? Why is the guy who could get an entire arena of 22,000 mixed race, gender and age fans-in Madison Square Garden-on their feet and cheering, the same man who now in retrospect looks so bad? What happened?
What happened is that we (as fans) became too smart. Smart in the sense that we became more focused on how the business operated than on what was happening in the ring. We lost our innocence. We lost the will to believe and get captured by what we were seeing. We let Tinkerbell die.
Now, I became aware that wrestling was a work at the age of eight, when I started attending my matches live at the various halls and high school gyms that the WWWF hosted around New England. Ivan Putski and his sloppy punches gave me an idea that all was not as it may have seemed. Watching a skilled technician like Johnny Rodz lose every match also strained the credibility factor in my mind. But even with that knowledge, I still cheered and booed with gusto.
It all changed for me when I discovered the business itself. Let me state for the record that when I discovered a little bit about how the wrestling business was run, I became fascinated! I am just as much of a fan in enthusiasm for wrestling now, as I was at ages 4, 8, or 12. The difference is that when I started being a fan of the business, I stopped being a fan of the matches. By becoming a mark for how the business worked I stopped being a fan for the end product. As my knowledge base grew, my innocence died. I can't watch a match anymore without becoming analytical about what I see from the perspective of what I now know. Now, I can still watch a great match and be impressed or entertained, but I can no longer be mesmerized by a match. I know too much.
Is this simply a part of becoming an adult? I don't think so. Look at the video footage throughout the years of adults losing their composure while watching a match. Even those who dismiss it as "fake" get caught up in the spell. Is this Vincent Kennedy McMahon's fault for declaring to the New Jersey Senate in 1989 that wrestling was not athletic competition, but a show? Not really. Many people knew that wrestling was a work dating back to at least the 1920's-and they still went and enjoyed themselves.
I think that the fault lies within us. You can either love what you watch, or you can love what you learn about what you are watching. You either love the magician's tricks, or you love learning how those tricks are performed. Obviously, and subconsciously, I made a decision to love the inner workings of the wrestling business and to not love the matches themselves. I traded the simple pleasures of the innocent for the complex pleasures of the learned. I enjoy learning about the true history of this business, so I guess that I can't say that I want to be innocent again.
Most of the time….
Thanks for reading,
By Harry Grover
As unique content strictly for the Professional Wrestling Historical Society