Professional wrestling's American roots reach back to the frontier tradition of itinerant grapplers who would travel alone or accompany minstrel shows and fairs, challenging all comers. Mark Twain drew the prototype in Life on the Mississippi in the fighter named "Sudden Death and General Desolation," whose boasting was nearly as effective as his strength in defeating his opponents. After 1900, wrestling moved to northern cities and became a popular spectator sport. These truly competitive matches could be long affairs, dominated by slow, defensive maneuvering that failed to hold fan interest, or they could end quickly in defeat. After a number of notable matches, including a 1909 Gotch-Hackenschmidt rematch in Chicago, which attracted some 40,000 spectators, legitimate wrestling went into decline as a professional sport.
In its place rose the modern variety of wrestling, characterized by exaggerated violence, theatrical conflicts, and outrageous characters. Early professional wrestlers sought to appeal to the urban immigrant working class of northern cities that composed the sport's base. Leading wrestlers of the 1920s included Irish Dan Mahoney, Turkish-born Ali Baba, and Stan Zbyszko. Jim Londos (Christos Theophilou), the Golden Greek, reigned as the leading wrestler of the 1930s. After World War II, Killer Kowalski, Bruno Sammartino, and Antonio "Argentine" Rocca, who billed himself as both Hispanic and Italian by virtue of his Italian-Argentine heritage, continued the tradition of ethnic wrestlers.
The spread of television after World War II broadened professional wrestling's appeal. Wrestling was a staple of early television broadcasts, especially for smaller stations seeking cheap programming that could appeal to family audiences. In the early 1950s, Chicago stood as the center of professional wrestling, hosting nationally broadcasted wrestling cards on Wednesday and Saturday nights over the ABC and the now defunct Du Mont television networks.
Wrestling's burlesque antics, invisible on radio, were well suited to the new visual medium, and television promoted the stylized violence and outrageous characters that came to dominate the sport. The 1950s saw masked wrestlers such as Zuma, Man from Mars, and the Hooded Phantom, super patriots such as Mr. America, the thinly disguised homoerotic antics of "Gorgeous George" Wagner, who bleached his hair and disinfected the ring with perfume, and "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers, who inspired the 1980s and 1990s wrestler Ric Flair. German and Japanese wrestlers enraged a public still seething with resentments from World War II, while Soviet wrestlers provided the new Cold War villains.
As professional wrestling's popularity grew with the television boom in the early 1950s, it also moved south. The sport initially migrated below the Mason-Dixon line in the 1930s when wrestlers like the German-born Milo Steinborn toured the region's leading cities, becoming especially popular in the Southeast. In the 1950s, regional promotions such as Jim Crockett's Charlotte-based National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) attracted ever larger audiences and gave the "Mid-Atlantic" Carolinas-Virginia circuit the reputation as "the hotbed of professional wrestling." Gulf Coast Championship Wrestling, operated by Dick Steinborn, son of Milo Steinborn, promoted wrestling in Alabama and Florida. Other leading promotions centered in western Tennessee, especially Memphis, and Texas. By the early 1960s, professional wrestling's popularity had declined in the North as more respectable mainstream sports, notably professional football, gained larger followings. Conversely, wrestling's popularity increased in the South, which still lacked a base of major-league professional franchises.
Like other loosely organized itinerant entertainment industries such as circuses and carnivals, the wrestling business has been a close-knit, family-organized affair. A remarkable number of wrestlers and promoters are the second or third generation in the business. Edward Welch, a wrestler and promoter who died in 1996 at the age of seventy-one, was the son and nephew of pioneering southern wrestlers and promoters. Welch wrestled and later promoted in the South under the name Buddy Fuller. His sons, Robert and Ronald, continued the family business. Robert Welch was better known as Colonel Rob Parker, a manager who adopted the persona of a southern gentleman. Welch's nephew also wrestled under the name "Bunkhouse Buck." Father-son combinations have also abounded: Jerry and Jeff Jarrett, Dusty and Dustin Rhodes. Sibling combinations have been common, too: Jake "The Snake" Roberts and Sam Houston are brothers; their sister wrestled under the name Rockin' Robin. Similarly, the brothers Lanny Poffo and "Macho Man" Randy Savage are the sons of wrestler Angelo Poffo.
The 1980s saw wrestling enjoy increasing national exposure for the first time since the early 1950s. Bolstered by the popularity of superstars such as Terry Bollea, an ex-bodybuilder and failed rock musician from Florida who wrestled as Hulk Hogan, professional wrestling rose to unprecedented levels of popularity. Hogan appeared in films and on television, and he even graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. Celebrities such as rock musician Cyndi Lauper and comedian Andy Kaufman embraced the sport for its seemingly naïve extravagance and stylized artifice. In 1985, professional wrestling returned to national network broadcast television for the first time since 1955, with the airing of Saturday Night's Main Event on NBC. The series of wrestling extravaganzas known as WrestleMania became national entertainment events.
The growth of new cable television outlets for the sport sparked a consolidation in the industry in the 1980s. Like the networks in the 1950s, cable TV programmers were attracted to wrestling as an inexpensive way to fill airtime. Seeing opportunities for growth in the sport on the new cable medium, wrestling impresario Vince McMahon, a second-generation wrestling promoter, expanded his World Wrestling Federation (WWF) out of its traditional base in the northeast. The WWF's roster of stars, including Hulk Hogan, along with its popular and profitable WrestleMania and TV payper-view programs, allowed McMahon to buy or drive out of business most of the smaller regional wrestling organizations. In 1984, McMahon moved his WWF into the South, purchasing a time slot on Ted Turner's Atlanta-based cable "superstation" WTBS. Personality conflicts between Turner and McMahon, as well as programming disagreements, prompted McMahon to sell his slot to Jim Crockett's NWA. The smaller NWA, however, was poorly prepared to compete with the WWF and was near bankruptcy by 1988. Turner, who needed programming to fill the airtime of his growing cable empire, purchased the NWA, renaming it World Championship Wrestling (WCW).
In the 1990s, Turner's Atlanta-based WCW and McMahon's WWF emerged as the reigning powers in wrestling, fueling an intense competition for ratings and fan dollars. In 1995, the WWF and WCW grossed $58.4 million and $48.1 million, respectively, on cable television pay-per-view programs alone. In 1999, retail sales of WWF merchandise alone exceeded $400 million. By 2001, with the WCW lagging behind the WWF in television ratings and ticket sales, McMahon purchased the WCW and, after losing a 2002 trademark lawsuit to the World Wildlife Fund, shortly thereafter renamed the newlycombined enterprise World Wrestling Entertainment, or WWE.
Professional wrestling targets males, aged eighteen to fifty-four, although just over one-fifth of the sport's audience is under eighteen. While wrestling promoters are fond of pointing out that the sport appeals to a wide range of education and income groups, three-quarters of the sport's television viewers had only a high school education or less. While males are wrestling's target group, women have long composed a substantial portion of the sport's audience. The chief sponsors of early-televised wrestling were household appliance dealers who sought to reach an adult female audience. In 2004, 36 percent of wrestling's television audience was female.
Given the fickleness of its target audience and many competing entertainment alternatives, professional wrestling has consistently attempted to anticipate the next new thing, which has led—and undoubtedly will continue to lead—to ceaseless changes in personae (though not necessarily in personnel), and in marketing strategies and tactics.
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Louis M. Kyriakoudes and Peter A. Coclanis