WRESTLING'S HARD SELL
A deeply tanned man who answers to the name “Hulk” spent less than 15 minutes in a 20-foot square ring in Toronto early this month and reduced 15,300 of his fans to helpless ecstasy. They screamed, squealed, hooted and hollered as the world’s most popular wrestler administered seemingly devastating punishment to two opponents at Maple Leaf Gardens. The result was never in doubt. After 14 minutes and nine seconds of combat Hulk Hogan, reigning good guy and pre-eminent superstar of professional wrestling, had once again triumphed over evil. With his tag-team partner, Junk Yard Dog, Hulk Hogan defeated 364-lb. Big John Studd and menacing King Kong Bundy. And as the fans applauded, Hogan, a 302-lb. bodybuilder from Venice Beach, Calif., acknowledged the adulation by preening himself and assuming muscle-bulging poses.
Pro wrestling in the 1980s is a dazzling combination of skill, strength and outrageous hype. It is certainly show business, but wrestlers must be careful to avoid injuries in a crowded schedule—many fight about 250 bouts
each year. Said Hogan: “One bad fall could wreck a career.”
Handsome, balding Terry Gene Bollea, 32, has had a diverse life as an actor and musician (page 39). But since 1982 he has been better known by his copyrighted ring names, Hulk Hogan and the Hulkster, mainly because of the marketing skills of 40-year-old Vince McMahon Jr., a Greenwich, Conn., promoter. Four years ago McMahon saw that the extravagance and spectacle of pro wrestling would appeal to a generation raised on rock ’n’ roll music. To that end, he began producing televised wrestling programs for syndication, building wrestling’s popularity among a new generation of fans (page 38). Still, the wrestling revival concerns some critics, who argue that the cartoon-like violence has a coarsening effect on children.
Screamed: But no one disputes that pro wrestling has become an outsized phenomenon in a surprisingly short time. After McMahon’s father became ill in 1982—he died in 1984—the son succeeded the father as head of the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), an organization that supplies wrestlers for bouts around the world. From his experience staging rock concerts in Yarmouth, Mass., Vince McMahon concluded that the fans who shouted and screamed at such acts as Def Leppard and The Clash would do the same thing at wrestling matches. And to gain access to that mass audience, McMahon sold WWF programs to cable networks and independent TV stations, building a loose network that now reaches more than 80 per cent of all households in the United States and Canada.
McMahon included pop music sound tracks on his programs and WWF wrestlers entered the ring with rock songs blaring through arena loudspeakers. And in 1984 pop singer Cyndi Lauper strengthened
the rock connection when she began managing wrestler Wendi Richter. Lauper engaged in a highly publicized feud with Rowdy Roddy Piper, one of the most energetic bad guys. At a WWF awards ceremony in December, 1984, to honor Lauper for her “contributions to rock and wrestling,” Piper not only kicked her in the face, he smashed her trophy—a platinum record—over the head of her wrestling mentor, Captain Lou Albano.
Bash: That publicity bonanza prompted McMahon to organize an even bigger bash: WrestleMania. On March 31, 1985, 20,000 fans in New York’s Madison Square Garden and more than a million at 165 closed-cir-
cuit outlets across North America watched Hulk Hogan and actor Mr. T from the NBC TV series The A-Team defeat Piper and Paul (Mr. Wonderful) Orndorff in a celebrity-studded extravaganza. Former New York Yankees manager Billy Martin acted as an announcer. Former world heavyweight boxing champion boxer Muhammad Ali was a guest referee. And Liberace used a small silver bell as the bout’s guest timekeeper. WrestleMania 2, featuring 12 bouts broadcast over closedcircuit TV from New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, was equally successful last month, with stars including Joan
Rivers, Cathy Lee Crosby and Chicago Bears football player William (The Refrigerator) Perry appearing on the show. Next spring McMahon is threatening an even bigger WrestleMania 3.
‘Killer’: WrestleMania’s success demonstrated that pro wrestling is enjoying its greatest popularity since the golden age of the 1950s when Canadian wrestlers, including Wladek (Killer) Kowalski and Whipper Billy Watson, ruled the ring. Said Sandor Kovacs, a 65-year-old Vancouver promoter: “He who controls TV controls the world. These bright young guys today don’t miss a trick.” Indeed, McMahon has al-
most swept his competition—the Minneapolis-based American Wrestling Association and the Atlanta-based National Wrestling Alliance—off their feet. The two smaller groups have joined forces as Pro Wrestling USA, but the WWF media blitz is daunting. The offerings include:
• A popular one-hour Saturdaymorning cartoon show called Hulk Hogan's Rock 'n' Wrestling on the CBS network. According to the National Coalition on Television Violence in Washington, D.C., the cartoon show has 32 acts of violence per hour, compared with 55 for Bugs Bunny.
• Three weekly syndicated TV shows on 190 stations in the United States and Canada.
• A 90-minute special, Saturday Night's Main Event, which replaces Saturday Night Live once a month on NBC. The show’s executive producer is Richard Ebersol, who helped develop Saturday Night Live.
• A best-selling record, The Wrestling Album, featuring such WWF stars as Hogan and Piper singing songs that include Tutti Frutti and Land of a Thousand Dances. The album has achieved gold record status in Canada after selling more than 50,000 copies.
• Various videotapes, including WWF Grudge Matches and six volumes of The Best of the WWF.
Toronto promoter Jack Tunney, 50, who took over Tunney Sports Inc. after his uncle Frank died three years ago, credits rock stars for revealing such moneymaking sidelines as T-shirts, posters, hats and dolls. Tunney has worked as a promoter since 1956 and times have never been better: a recent card at the Gardens drew 17,000 fans who paid from $12 to $15 for their seats. Tunney would not disclose his percentage of that gate, estimated at more than $200,000. Said a smiling Tunney: “It’s a big, big business right now.” But more than the money, Tunney said he enjoys the people: “After a match they’re wrung out. Some of them can hardly talk for all the yelling and screaming they’ve done. They’ve just had a hell of a time and that makes me happy.” And Tunney maintains that wrestling matches provide a harmless release for aggression. Said Tunney: “I think we’re saving a lot of fights off the street because they can vent their steam in the Gardens. They’re tired when they leave.”
Still, York University sociologist Michael Smith says there is a dark side to wrestling. Smith, author of the 1983 book Violence and Sport, told Maclean's: “Wrestling exemplifies the need for simpleminded answers—black and white, good and bad, based on sexual and ethnic stereotyping, the Arabs, Nazis, Orientals, gays versus the Captain America types. It reinforces un-
derlying hostilities in a blatant, outrageous way.” And Gary Worrell, a physical education professor at the University of New Brunswick, argues that wrestling fans enjoy the controlled anarchy that occurs in the ring: the obvious rule-breaking and conspicuous lack of fair competition. Said Worrell: “It is orchestrated entertainment. Every minute is planned. It is the good versus the bad phenomenon. It is good over evil —like Rambo or Rocky." Added John Furedy, a University of Toronto psychology professor: “There is a basic element of deception. The audience allows itself to be made a fool of.”
Slap: Despite the denunciations of violence, even from the worst seats in most arenas, it is clear that wrestlers pull their punches — sometimes by as much as a foot. For all that, the opponent falls unconscious to the mat.
And although wrestlers survive numerous body slams, they tumble after a slap across the face.
Supposedly stunned combatants wander around the ring until their adversary can leap on them from the top rope. During an April 19 performance at Maple Leaf Gardens, freelance photographer Jeffrey Wasserman was close enough to the action to overhear two wrestlers choreographing their moves. Reports Wasserman: “One guy said, Ts this hold comfortable?’ Another guy said, ‘Okay, I’m going to throw you now.’ ”
Fakery: For McMahon and other promoters the fakery issue is offensive. Said McMahon: “It really doesn’t matter to me whether someone believes it’s real or fake. It matters that they enjoy what we do, the performance inside and outside the ring.” To that end, one of the biggest ring villains during the 1950s operates the Killer Kowalski Institute of Professional Wrestling in Boston (page 40). He is one of several retired wrestlers teaching would-be grapplers how to execute a flying dropkick—and, more importantly, how to land feet-first from a body slam to avoid injury.
Kowalski maintains that he has “no home outside wrestling,” and there are other old wrestlers who find they cannot stay away from the game once their ring careers are over. Emile Dupré, for one, wrestled all over the
Maritimes for 20 years before turning to promoting wrestling cards through his company, Atlantic Grand Prix Wrestling, in 1974. But Dupré’s operation is a throwback to a time before increased TV coverage made wrestling fashionable again. The 48-year-old Dupré has a dozen wrestlers under contract, five of whom live near his home in Shediac, N.B. He stages a
show almost every night of the week, charging a top ticket price of $7 for up to 3,000 customers. Said Dupré: “The wrestling business is like a roller coaster. And this year it has jumped right back up again.”
In the good old days of Canadian wrestling,
Whipper Billy Watson was one of the biggest stars. The Whip, as he was known, was the king of the ring during his 35-year career.
When he finally retired from wrestling in 1971 at the age of 53— after suffering serious leg injuries in a car accident—Watson had fought more than 7,000 bouts and held world, Commonwealth and Canadian pro championships. At his winter home in Sebring, Fla., last week, Watson said that wrestling has not changed much since his time. Said
Watson: “Just the personalities have changed. But there are more young people interested in wrestling today.” Certainly one aspect remains the same: in the male-dominated world of wrestling, women performers have a limited role. The powerful WWF usually has women fighting in only four of the 60 matches it stages each month. Said WWF spokesman Michael Weber: “Lady
wrestling is not our bread and butter. It is just an added dimension to the show.” For the most part, women play the role of valet or manager, holding the robes of male wrestlers while they are in the ring. And midget wrestling has not been part of the new wrestling boom —in large part because there are few new performers challenging for the mantle of such 1950s stars as Little Beaver and Sky Low Low.
Good guys: The current performers project larger-than-life images, but the basic script remains unchanged from
Whipper Watson’s time: bouts feature the good guys—usually cleancut, good-looking North Americans— against the bad guys—almost always ugly, mean, dirty fighters from antiU.S. countries like the Soviet Union or
Iran. The good guys are led by Hulk Hogan, who in turn is followed by:
• André the Giant: Known as “the eighth wonder of the world,” Frenchborn André is the biggest wrestler around at seven feet, four inches and 520 lb. Since 1970, he claims never to have lost a match by being pinned or giving up. His size is his only asset.
• The Junk Yard Dog: One of the few black wrestlers on the WWF circuit, “jYD” spent most of his career wrestling in the southern United States before joining the WWF in 1985. He is known for his love of children—and his most feared ring move, “the big thump,” a super body slam.
• Tito Santana: A former football player with the British Columbia Lions, Santana started wrestling professionally in 1977. Born in Tacula, Mexico, he was mainly a tag-team wrestler before going solo and winning the WWF Intercontinental Championship in 1985. Santana lost that title to Randy (Macho Man) Savage earlier this year.
Some of the major bad guys are:
• Rowdy Roddy Piper: Born in Glasgow, Scotland, Piper attended high school in Winnipeg before dropping out to become the youngest pro wrestler in Canada at age 16. Since turning pro in 1967, Piper, who wears a kilt and carries bagpipes into the ring, has become one of the most hated villains in wrestling. The loudmouthed host of cable TV’S Piper's Pit, an American wrestling talk show, Piper has almost constantly been embroiled in controversy for racist comments and ethnic slurs. He once told a St. Louis audience that their city was the gateway to the East and West because no one in their right mind would live there.
• The Iron Sheik: A former WWF heavyweight champion, the Iranian national became notorious during the American hostage crisis in Iran in 1980 when organizers pitted him against flag-waving favorite Sergeant Slaughter. He is best known for the dreaded “camel clutch,” a devastating chin hold.
• Big John Studd: At six feet, 10
inches and 364 lb., he is second in size only to Andre the Giant. The bearded Californian is known for being especially mean and for bad-mouthing his opponents—particularly Andre, whom he categorizes as “a freak” and “a circus sideshow.”
• King Kong Bundy: Both mean and ugly, the Atlantic City, N.J., resident is a mountain of a man who batters opponents until he can finish them off with a “big splash,” in which he drops his 468-lb. body on to a supine opponent.
Profits: Although the big-name wrestlers make high profits—Hogan reportedly earns $2.5 million a yearlife on the road can be hectic. Because there is no off-season, wrestlers work year-round, often fighting three or four matches a week, shuttling constantly between airports, hotels, arenas and TV studios. Said Tunney: “The guys can’t have a quiet meal because people are always wanting autographs. They’re recognized all over the place.”
The wrestling career of a former pro football star, 300-lb. Angelo Mosca, clearly shows that durability and a strong work ethic are almost as important as a flair for ring theatrics. Mosca, who was a tough defensive lineman for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats during the 1960s, is now 50 and has been a wrestling promoter since last February. But during his 22-year wrestling career he fought 5,000 bouts in 17 countries. Declared the six-foot, fourinch Mosca: “Our business doesn’t start with going into the ring. It starts by getting up early and training. Train hard, work hard.”
Legend: As the nephew of Johnny Rougeau, a Quebec wrestling legend during the 1950s, 26-year-old Jacques Rougeau Jr. of St.-Sulpice, Que., grew up with wrestling maxims ringing in his ears. Now, he and his brother Raymond are carrying on the family tradition: last December the WWF’s McMahon reportedly signed each of them to a one-year contract worth $340,000. Declared Jacques: “When we left
Vince’s office the last thing he told us was, ‘You guys are going to be the biggest thing in Canada since Pepsi Cola.’ ” It could happen. Declared Tunney: “Wrestling is bigger this week than it was last week and last week I thought it was as big as it could ever get. I don’t think it’s going to go on forever—but I can’t see when it’s going to stop.” And as long as superstar strong men like Hulk Hogan and King Kong Bundy keep drawing near-sellout crowds to arenas across the country, the bubble that hype built will never burst.
KEVIN SCANLON with ANNE STEACY, SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER and NOMI MORRIS in Toronto and DAN BURKE in Montreal