By Aaron D. Horton
When mentioning one’s fandom of professional wrestling to a layperson, the most likely response will be some iteration of the question: “you know it’s fake, right?” Such inquiries, often asked in a derisive and condescending tone, are charged with implications of the fan’s ignorance of professional wrestling’s predetermined nature, amusement that said person would bother watching a “fake” sport, or surprise, even indignation, that an otherwise intelligent individual could be duped into following such a “lowbrow” form of entertainment. Those asking such questions are often fans of so-called legitimate sports, such as football and baseball, or of film, television, and other forms of mainstream entertainment widely considered more acceptable than professional wrestling. “You know it’s fake, right?” assumes that the fan in question is either ignorant of professional wrestling’s “worked” nature or, more likely, wasting their time watching an illegitimate sport. This is not a new phenomenon. Since the late 1800s, numerous sources in mainstream media have derided pro wrestling as fake, with limited impact on its popularity. While pro wrestling has largely been “worked” since the turn of the twentieth century, promoters and performers began increasingly prizing entertainment value over maintaining the appearance of legitimate contests, with top wrestlers determined increasingly by their looks and popular appeal rather than their actual grappling skills.
Such questions persist, despite the fact that professional wrestling has been increasingly open in the past several decades, with promoters and wrestlers freely admitting to the sport’s predetermined nature. In February 1989, World Wrestling Federation owner Vince McMahon declared to the State of New Jersey Senate that his business’ primary purpose was “providing entertainment to spectators rather than conducting a bona fide athletic contest,” a move intended to free the WWF from state athletic commission regulation and oversight. McMahon and others’ recent transparency about the performative nature of pro wrestling contrasts sharply with the rigid maintaining of kayfabe throughout most of the sport’s history. Despite widespread openness among promoters, wrestlers, and fans about the fact that wrestling is not a competitive sport in the past several decades, sports media personalities such as Colin Cowherd have continued to deride and mock pro wrestling and its followers. Cowherd notoriously made light of the deaths of Eddie Guerrero (2005) and the Ultimate Warrior (2014) and has repeatedly referred to wrestling fans as “booger eaters” on social media. Cowherd’s attention-seeking sensationalism aside, a brief examination of pro wrestling history will reveal that its fans have almost always prized entertainment value above “legitimacy,” despite ongoing derision from mainstream sports media and numerous exposés from both media and insider sources. Indeed, many fans eagerly embrace wrestling’s recent openness, as the preponderance of WWE-produced behind-the-scenes documentaries, shoot interviews from Kayfabe Commentaries and others, and the publication of seemingly countless memoirs and other books that acknowledge the underlying reality beyond the performance.
Professional wrestling, as detailed by Tim Corvin, Gerald Mortion and George O’Brien, and Scott Beekman among others, emerged in the nineteenth-century United States as a combination of legitimate grappling styles, from collar-and-elbow wrestling, popular among Irish immigrants serving in the Union army during the Civil War, to the misleadingly-named Greco-Roman style (developed and popularized in France), to catch wrestling (from “catch-as-catch-can,” with an emphasis on submission holds such as armlocks, leglocks, and chokes) from Lancashire. Many early matches, such as those involving Greco-Roman grappler William Muldoon, the top star in American pro wrestling in the 1880s, appear to have been a mix of works (predetermined matches) and shoots (legitimate contests). Contemporary newspaper accounts frequently questioned the legitimacy of professional wrestling matches, with regular accusations of “hippodroming” (fakery). For example, a November 14, 1877, article in The Brooklyn Eagle claimed of professional wrestling that “there has scarcely been an important contest in which the result had not been known beforehand.”
A pair of Muldoon’s matches against Clarence Whistler illustrate one likely impetus for wrestling’s shift toward predetermined matches. In 1881 (exact date unknown), the two wrestled to a grueling eight-hour draw in New York City, a likely shoot match the New York Herald referred to as a “torture marathon” (p. 65) that left both competitors bloodied and bruised, and spectators exhausted and frustrated. According to an account in the Sacramento Daily Record-Union, their rematch in San Francisco on November 1, 1883, was a far more entertaining affair. The two-of-three falls match featured several spectacular elements, including a quick Muldoon pinfall after a slam in the first fall and a second-fall tumble out of the ring, during which a “desperate gang of toughs” attacked Muldoon, supposedly because they had bet money on Whistler. When the undersized Whistler pinned Muldoon in the second fall, after a series of exciting near falls, the crowd “[jumped] into the main floor, cheering and throwing their hats in the air.” The match was stopped in the third fall after Whistler broke his collarbone when slammed by Muldoon, but the latter agreed to split the $2,000 purse with his opponent as a gesture of respect. While determining the match’s work-shoot ratio is difficult, the contrast with their earlier bout is striking, and implies that the two may have, at the very least, agreed to cooperate to make the match more exciting, even if the outcome was not predetermined.
Many early matches were worked not to entertain, but rather to maximize gambling profits, with many spectators betting throughout the match. Wrestlers would often make it appear one was on the verge of victory, leading to an influx of bets on the “sure” winner, only for the impending loser to make a surprising comeback. The wrestlers had accomplices among the bettors, placing money on the “sure loser,” only to reap considerable profits from the “surprise” ending. Wrestlers and promoters also became increasingly aware of the correlation between matches’ entertainment value and box office receipts. A match with an exciting or controversial finish was far more likely to draw paying spectators to a rematch than a lengthy, dull contest that left fans bored or resentful.
The first pro wrestling superstar, heavyweight Frank Gotch, who drew the then-largest attendance (approx. 30,000) and gate ($87,000) for a September 4, 1911, rematch against rival George Hackenschmidt at Comiskey Park in Chicago, was a skilled shooter who few could likely defeat in a legitimate contest. While his biographer, Mike Chapman, insists that all of Gotch’s matches were shoots, several instances suggest otherwise, chief among them Gotch’s upset loss to Fred Beall on December 6, 1906, in New Orleans. Beall (167 lbs.) pinned Gotch (202 lbs.) in two straight falls after Gotch “accidentally” fell and hit his head either on the mat or ring post, depending on the account. There were a suspiciously high number of bets on Beall to win, and in their rematch for the American heavyweight championship on April 29, 1907, in Chicago, Gotch duly reclaimed his title. The Dawson Daily News account of the rematch claimed that it was “considered an exhibition.” In contemporary newspaper accounts, referring to a match as an “exhibition” was a circumspect way of claiming that it was not a legitimate contest.
In the 1920s, Ed “Strangler” Lewis became wrestling’s top attraction. He and his promotional partners, manager Billy Sandow and former wrestler Joseph “Toots” Mondt, began staging full pro wrestling cards, rather than the single or handful of bouts at past events, with a focus on exciting, entertaining (and entirely worked) matches that would encourage fans to keep spending money to attend events. There were occasional unplanned shoots, usually when a legitimate grappler decided to steal a championship from a “show” wrestler; for example, shooter Dick Shikat, full of animosity toward Lewis’ promotional cartel, submitted champion Danno O’Mahoney, a “show” wrestler who rose to prominence due to his looks and popularity among Irish-Americans, at Madison Square Garden on March 2, 1936. However, the overwhelming majority of matches were held strictly for entertainment purposes, to maximize ticket revenues. Wrestlers such as O’Mahoney and Jim Londos were pushed due to their looks, popularity, and drawing power, rather than any legitimate grappling skill. This was a gradual transition, as some promoters, including Sam Muchnik, founder of the National Wrestling Alliance (1948), and Verne Gagne, founder of the American Wrestling Association (1960), continued to prefer champions who could shoot, including longtime NWA champion Lou Thesz and Gagne himself, ostensibly so they could defend themselves against any attempts at a Shikat-like attempt to “steal” a title. Despite some promoters’ lingering attachments to “legitimacy,” the long-term trend most definitely favored colorful characters over skilled shooters, especially after the beginning of the television era.
As wrestling pivoted increasingly toward entertainment, with more spectacular (and therefore increasingly implausible as legitimate) moves and performances, there was a proportionate increase in direct attacks on wrestling’s legitimacy from mainstream sports media. Dan Parker, sports columnist for the New York Daily Mirror, regularly poked fun at pro wrestling, often predicting outcomes of matches beforehand in order to demonstrate that the “burpers” (his oft-used derisive term for wrestlers) were “phonies.” For example, in his February 20, 1935 column, he noted that he found his “entertainment” at wrestling events in the “preposterous acts of buffoonery enacted by the gentlemen of the ensemble, as you might call the burpers in the supporting bouts.” Parker also frequently questioned the mechanics of wrestling maneuvers, arguing (correctly) that many could not be done without cooperation. In 1937, the first book-length exposé, Marcus Griffin’s Fall Guys: The Barnums of Bounce, discussed in detail the history and inner workings of the business, despite numerous factual errors. Most likely, both Parker and Griffin were fed insider information from promoter Jack Pfefer, who began exposing pro wrestling’s secrets in the 1930s in retaliation against the Lewis promotional cartel, who had blackballed Pfefer from promoting events in the lucrative New York market. Over fifty years before McMahon admitted that pro wrestling was not a legitimate competition, these figures openly discussed the worked nature of pro wrestling, with limited impact on its popularity among fans, who continued to buy tickets to see Jim Londos and other top stars.
In the 1950s, owing partly to the rapid rise in television ownership in the United States, professional wrestling experienced a surge in popularity, with the four major broadcast networks regularly airing wrestling events during the decade. Pro wrestling was ideal cheap programming for early television. Promoters booked arenas for their events, so unlike many television shows, they did not usually require studio space. Thus setting up a single, stationary camera at arenas was the only significant production cost, one often borne by promoters rather than networks. Despite receiving little to no revenue from early televised events, promoters used television to build interest in their stars and thus encourage fans to buy tickets to attend shows at their local arenas. Wrestlers such as “Gorgeous” George and “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers pushed the envelope of showmanship, with more emphasis on outrageous characters and “gimmicks” than on perceived or actual grappling ability, though respected shooter Lou Thesz and other “legit” wrestlers continued to be top draws alongside the “entertainment” performers. Newspaper coverage in the era largely reported results and angles without questioning wrestling’s legitimacy, hoping to capitalize on the sport’s television-fueled popularity to attract readers. There were, of course, continuing mentions of wrestling’s predetermined nature, as in a December 17, 1955, Associated Press article, “Fair Bouts Could Kill Wrestling, Official Fears,” in which California state athletic commission chairman Norman O. Houston acknowledged that wrestling was predetermined, and that any attempts to force promoters to feature actual competitive contests would likely kill the sport, presumably because shoot matches would fail to attract spectators. This and other articles demonstrate a widespread awareness of wrestling’s “fakeness” that had little effect on its popularity around the country, with major territories (regional promotions) often drawing thousands of fans to their events, including Vincent J. McMahon’s World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF, formerly Capitol Wrestling Corporation, renamed in 1963), which regularly sold out events at Madison Square Garden. Even the occasional attempts to stab or otherwise harm “heel” (bad-guy) wrestlers, an act especially common among older women, represented a small portion of the overall audience, and some of these individuals were probably simply caught up in the moment, rather than genuinely believing in the reality of the performance.
In the 1980s, several high-profile exposés of pro wrestling had little effect on its popularity, fueled by Vince McMahon’s rapid national expansion, aided by cable television and his top star, WWF champion Hulk Hogan. In autobiographies, disillusioned wrestlers publicly admitted wrestling’s “secrets,” including British grappler Jackie Pallo and Japanese wrestler Satoru Sayama. Newsletters such as Dave Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer and Wade Keller’s Pro Wrestling Torch began offering subscribers legitimate journalism on wrestling’s inner workings and backstage machinations, indicating a growing market for insider information among hardcore fans, whose fandom was enhanced rather than harmed by such knowledge. Former NFL player and preliminary wrestler Jim Wilson spoke openly about wrestling’s predetermined nature on the “Pro Wrestling Exposed” episode of 20/20 (December 28, 1984), remembered largely for WWF wrestler “Dr. D” David Schultz slapping reporter John Stossel multiple times in response to the latter declaring his belief that wrestling was fake. Wilson also appeared on a 1989 episode of the Morton Downy Jr. Show, explaining the inner workings of pro wrestling while claiming he was blackballed from the business for refusing promoter Jim Barnett’s sexual advances. The Downy episode was particularly fascinating, as wrestling personalities such as Schultz, Lou Albano, Paul E. Dangerously, and others lambasted Wilson’s claims, with most accusing him of simply being bitter that he wasn’t “good enough” to succeed in the business. Albano even declared that if his wife believed he was faking matches, she would have divorced him.
The wrestling personalities’ adamant insistence upon wrestling’s “legitimacy” is especially remarkable, because by 1989, the only people who seemed overly concerned with maintaining the pretense were those within the business, many of whom seemingly believed, as their forebears surely had decades earlier, that any acknowledgment of wrestling’s predetermined nature would destroy their profession. Of course, that same year, Vince McMahon openly admitted that pro wrestling was not a legitimate sport, with little effect on the WWF’s popularity or revenues. While pro wrestling in the United States experienced a decline in viewership and attendance in the early-to-mid 1990s, due to a variety of factors unrelated to its perceived legitimacy or lack thereof, the industry reached unprecedented heights of popularity and revenues in the late 1990s, during an intense period of competition between the WWF and Ted Turner’s WCW, despite the fact that few, if any, fans could possibly believe wrestling was anything other than entertainment. Throughout its history, pro wrestling has elicited derision from mainstream media for its obvious “fakery,” to the point that one finds it implausible that the majority of fans, whether in 1910 or 2010, or many points before, after, or in-between, have ever truly believed pro wrestling was a legitimate sport.
Historically, those most insistent on pro wrestling’s legitimacy were not fans, but rather wrestlers, promoters, and other insiders, who feared that acknowledgment of wrestling’s worked nature would destroy their lucrative profession. Since its early days, the majority of pro wrestling fans have been willing participants in the performance, allowing themselves to suspend disbelief for the sake of entertainment. While outcomes are predetermined, which seems to be the primary fixation of those decrying wrestling as “fake,” matches often feature a great deal of physicality and risk, evidenced in long-term (and occasionally immediate) damaging effects on most performers’ bodies. In most sports, predetermined or not, colorful characters tend to sell more tickets and draw better ratings (or pay-per-view purchases), building fans’ interest in the outcome of a game, match, or fight. Boxing legend Muhammad Ali and various MMA fighters, including Chael Sonnen and Conor McGregor, deliberately adopted pro-wrestling style heel personas in order to build interest in their fights, resulting usually in great financial success. At its core, pro wrestling shares much in common with other sports, specifically the concept of generating anticipation among fans for an upcoming contest in order to maximize profit. The fact that pro wrestling’s matches and outcomes are performative rather than competitive, has rarely been relevant to the majority of its fans, who are no more bothered by its predetermined nature than a moviegoer would be upset upon realizing that Robert Downey Jr. is not actually Tony Stark.
Shoot: A legitimate contest or any element, such as an interview, that acknowledges the underlying reality behind wrestling’s established characters and conventions. The opposite of “work.” A “shooter” is a wrestler who possesses legitimate competitive grappling skills.
Work: A bout or element in which the participants cooperate with each other for the purpose of entertainment, rather than competition. The opposite of “shoot.” A good “worker” is a wrestler who is skilled at performing technically sound, entertaining matches.
Aaron D. Horton is a Professor of History at Alabama State University, and specializes in modern German and modern East Asian (Japanese and Korean) cultural history. He is the author of POWs, Der Ruf, and the Genesis of Group 47: The Political Journey of Alfred Andersch and Hans Werner Richter (Fairleigh Dickenson University Press, 2014). His recent publications, including several book chapters and the edited volume Identity in Professional Wrestling: Essays on Nationality, Race and Gender (McFarland, 2018), deal with the confluences of identity and popular culture, including film, music, and sports.
Featured Image: Ring in Detroit, from a 1972 issue of Body Press Wrestling Magazine.