Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Why I’ve Had Problems with the W(W)WF/E for 43 Years

Every once in awhile, someone will ask why I have a tendency to react negatively (and occasionally with volatility) when confronting the initials W(W)WF/E. It’s a legitimate query, and the answer is one that still burns within me. To explain the reason, we need to go back to the year 1966. For that was when this 16-year-old hopelessly addicted pro wrestling fan journeyed from Los Angeles to New York, ostensibly to visit relatives.

I looked forward to spending a month with aunts, uncles and cousins I’d not seen in years. And there was an intriguing aspect beyond that; it was to be the first time I’d ever taken a coast-to-coast trip on my own, and New York was, without question, a very exciting city. So this was pretty heady stuff. But the third reason, which remained unspoken, had been in my mind from the very start. By flying 3,000 miles across the continent, I would finally get a chance to see the wrestlers of the WWWF in action! Probably not live, but their television performances would surely suffice.

We must remember that in the mid-1960s, channels above the standard VHF (2 – 13) were in the early stages of finding their place in the fairly new world of UHF (channels 14 and higher). And since cable television was off in the distant future, we wrestling fans mostly had to content ourselves with watching our local promotions exclusively. We could only read and form our opinions of other territories based on the descriptions in the “rasslin’” magazines.

My two favorite can’t-miss monthly publications were Wrestling World and Wrestling Revue. I’d also buy the others when I found them. But it was the features and the photographs in those two particular periodicals that made me commit to them every month. To raise the money for the $.50 publications, I’d take on household chores, even if it meant resorting to the dreaded chore of vacuuming. That was the one I detested the most, ever since I’d foolishly squeezed a full bag too hard and got a face full of dust, bobbi pins and small thick gooey globs of … something.

But it was the fact that as well as the live weekly two-hour program I faithfully watched (Championship Wrestling from the Olympic Auditorium), the periodicals formed the basis of my early grappling education. Thanks to the dazzling word descriptions, the vivid (and sometime violent) photographs coupled with my own naiveté, the idea of getting a glimpse at the WWWF’s magnificent champion, Bruno Sammartino, grew. Among the names that jumped off the pages and grabbed my attention were other high profile babyfaces, such as Spiros Arion, Bobo Brazil and Dominic DeNucci. The pictures and the accompanying stories created images of men who were strong, heroic and skilled craftsmen at their chosen profession.

The heel side of the fence looked mighty attractive, too. How could you go wrong with names like Killer Kowalski, Dr. Bill Miller and Crazy Luke Graham? From the descriptions I read, their dastardly deeds created havoc for the good guys until the highly anticipated blow-off several months down the road.

By 1966, I’d learned enough about the various territories and their respective styles to think I knew what to expect anywhere in the country. Because of that, nothing I’d read convinced me that the WWWF action was comparable to the thrills that took place in states like Texas and Tennessee. The entire Gulf Coast looked to be as wild as it got. I also figured the northeasterners likely wouldn’t measure up to the realism and excitement that promoter Cowboy Luttrell (and later Eddie Graham) demanded in Florida. But still … the WWWF boys were featured regularly, appearing prominently in something like 50 percent of every magazine every month. To get that kind of press, those guys had to be awfully good, right?

As it turned out, I stayed most of the time in Far Rockaway with my Aunt Tillie (yes, I indeed had an Aunt Tillie, who was just off-center enough to keep me laughing most of the time) and her husband, my Uncle Hamlet (who was somewhat distant but a decent guy. And just a little bit nuts, too). Soon after settling in, I ventured forth and made my pitch. Something like:

“You know I love you both, Aunt Tillie and Uncle Hamlet. And it’s because I know you feel the same way about me, I’d like to ask a big favor. You see, I’m a really big wrestling fan and all I’ve ever been able to see is what comes out of Los Angeles. I’d love to take a look at what goes on here in New York. I’ll bet it’s great … just like everything in New York!” (I had no shame when it came to pandering for my wrestling fix).

My dear Aunt Tillie, who doted on me because we shared the same birthday (different years, of course), said it would be just fine by her. Uncle Hamlet grunted his approval from behind a newspaper and muttered an oath at recently elected New York City Mayor, John Lindsay. All I cared about was that the hurdle had been overcome fairly easily. Now, it was just a case of patience, waiting for the program to take center stage a few nights later.

With each passing day (which rapidly became each passing hour), I found myself counting how much longer it would be until the show’s Friday night 9 p.m. start. My enthusiasm turned into something else: it crossed over into an obsession. Poor Aunt Tillie and Uncle Hamlet listened to stories I related from the magazines, punctuating these tales with moments of high suspense and drama. Tillie typically replied with a non-committal “that’s nice” and Ham would always find it was just about time to head out for his never-ending pinochle game.

Finally … FINALLY … the wait was no more. The night that promised a full hour of WWWF excitement had arrived.

I plopped down on the couch some 15 minutes early and turned on the 18” black-and-white portable television set. To pass the time, I mentally recalled snippets of favorite stories I’d memorized from my beloved magazines. All of them involved the wrestlers of the WWWF. I was pumped to the max and prepared to watch every delicious minute of the upcoming show, including the commercials. I wanted to ravenously devour every last bit of the WWWF sporting experience, so I might gain a sense of what the company “felt like.”

After all, I’d long since adopted the impression that L.A.’s WWA wrestling was generally pretty good and fairly solid, but too constrained for my liking. It was rare when two “enemies” really cut loose on television. Although the southern California style was still somewhat staid at this time, it was undergoing a transformation, gradually loosening up and taking greater risks. A large part of this was due to the introduction of some Mexican luchadors, along with a few tough, brawling good ol’ boys from the southern states.

That said, the WWA was never to reach the heights of wild, unrestrained action and engrossing storylines found in places like Memphis, Amarillo and Baton Rouge. My best guess was that the New Yorkers would offer a hybrid of styles, something between Los Angeles and Texas wrestling. (Geographically speaking, I suppose that would make it either Arizona or New Mexico wrestling).

And then … 9 p.m. arrived! Yes! I was about to wallow in some great WWWF action!

The first indication that this might be something less than expected began with the introduction of the wrestling announcer. It was Zacherly. Now, I’d read a lot about Zacherly in the non-wrestling publications I enjoyed, particularly Famous Monsters of Filmland. Zacherly had become famous as the host of weekend televised horror movies up and down the eastern seaboard. Wearing make-up and face paint (long before wrestlers picked up the habit), he suggested a very cool ghoul; and thus, he was a big hit with kids of all ages.

That was all right with me. But at the same time, I felt that the announcer of a wrestling show needed to be seen as a real person, not a character. Doing so left the impression that this 'oddity,' even if he was very entertaining in another environment, was completely out of place in the world of sports. It irked me.

But the greatest letdown was the wrestling itself. By comparison, learning that Zacherly was the program’s announcer would be a trivial disappointment barely worth mentioning. The 'action,' all of it consisting of TV-studio squash matches out of New Jersey, stunk. L.A. also had a lot of non-competitive bouts, but most of them were more-or-less watchable.

I’d like to interject a personal message to those fans who enjoyed the WWWF presentation a-way back then. Surely you’re disagreeing with my perceptions. I remind you that this is not a “right or wrong” issue; it’s about preferences. To my 16-year-old mind, seeing the WWWF product on TV rather than imagining it based solely on someone’s fanciful yarns was like going to the Empire State Building and finding that it was only two stories high.

All this time, I had been convinced by the magazines that a special high caliber wrestling show was in the offing. It would give the lucky television audience well-paced thrills, including an impressive display of holds and counter-holds. And, thanks to the mags, I’d expected creative booking to be a large part of the mix. To my increasing dismay, what I encountered was the polar opposite.

The first thing I saw was that there was no action, per se. Drawing heat was an unknown concept. By 9:10, the silence from the crowd was so loud that I wondered if there was some sort of city ordinance in place: anyone raising his or her voice would be instantly removed from the premises. Mind you, I never blamed the 100 or so fans that were in attendance. How could I? There really was nothing taking place that might encourage a vocal response.

Around the same time, it became painfully obvious that the wrestlers, the majority of them bearing names I’d never read before, were walking through their matches. I mean this literally. Apathy was the primary emotion most evident from start to finish. I couldn’t believe my eyes when two wrestlers chose to throw caution to the wind and run the ropes. This was executed at half-speed, maybe less. When the inevitable mid-ring collision came, both men slowed up noticeably. As they reached the point of contact, they cautiously bumped into each other, with each man taking an embarrassingly fake fall. Feh!

Incredulous and slack-jawed, I remembered something from earlier in the day. Well, hell! I’d seen a greater impact between several passengers on a subway train as I returned to Far Rockaway from the city that very afternoon!

The crowd in the TV studio seemingly yawned, snored or sat like a group painting, staring blankly at what was taking place in front of them. The one and only time there was anything close to audience participation came when one brave wise-ass directed an insult at a heel. Had the recipient responded in kind, it might have actually generated some honest-to-goodness excitement. No such thing occurred, and the combatants continued on at the same ponderous mind-numbingly slow pace, sleepwalking the rest of the way.

But wait! Suddenly and unexpectedly, there was cause to perk up and pay attention! It was Gorilla Monsoon himself who put in an appearance near the end of the show. Because he was a heel from Manchuria who only growled menacingly (as all Manchurians must), he looked impressive and threatening. Monsoon, whom I’d read about numerous times, was the one bright light that had arrived to save the lackluster affair. Yay, Gorilla!

It was indeed compelling at first. And then, he went and ruined it all by grabbing a wooden chair from ringside and attempting to smack a lower-card babyface over the head with it. The amazingly deliberate swing was so underwhelming and gentle that it looked to be in ultra-slow motion (even before such technology existed). Meanwhile, the recipient of the blow reached up and grabbed the offending chair when it was about a foot above his head.

Okay, maybe he was trying to deflect the object. But it took so long to execute that the guy had enough time to write out his will before contact was made. As a fan for eight years, it was crystal clear that the victim was actually assisting Monsoon in carefully lowering the weapon. When it finally arrived, there was almost no sound to be heard. A tiny 'bink,' perhaps. Then, the guy dropped to the floor, selling it like he’d been shot. His tumble was the quickest anyone had moved in the entire hour … an hour that felt like a week. I was inconsolable.

One week later, I gave the WWWF another chance. Ever the optimist, I hoped that what I’d seen before was a rarity, a bad show that was far from the norm. Well, if it was, they decided to repeat the scenario seven days hence. Most of the program consisted of the same individuals I’d already seen with a few new ones of equal ability turning up. Before the hour was through, I found myself intermittently taking glances while reading a book.

As the second disappointing show headed towards its wind-up, a hard sell pitchman kept insisting we all needed to a local arena one week later to see the hard-hitting contests between all of the big names. By then, I’d become so discouraged that I was crossing the border into a full-blown depression. I decided that the wrestlers were actually training camp recruits, far from ready to be put on public display. I’d seen nothing to convince me the more recognizable wrestlers would be any different. A film clip had aired during that second show, one which included the finish to a recently held main event. It was only marginally better than the TV show had been.

So, that’s why I never enjoyed what the company ever did, no matter what McMahon was in charge. Their entire philosophy, if that’s what it can be called, had nothing to do with creating a credible image of a genuine competition. How is the viewer supposed to suspend disbelief if the product is unrelentingly boring and uninspired?

To be fair, there certainly have been outstanding and memorable W(W)WF/E bouts over the years, with storylines and wrestling displays that generated real interest and excitement. For that, I give them the credit that they earned. But from all appearances, that type of bout had never been the primary goal. And though the style changed occasionally, the mindset remained constant.

Whenever I’ve had occasion to watch a McMahon production, I inevitably find myself shaking my head. From the WWWF plodding display to Hulksterism to the Cartoon Era to Whatever-Came-After-That to the Attitude Era and so on, the basic underlying approach has remained intact. It's never been about firing up the viewer’s imagination by constructing a plausible series of matches. Bouts that made sense and built week-by-week to culminate in a satisfying conclusion was not the goal. With some exceptions, the W(W)WF/E production is all about the moment, rarely with long-term and logical development in mind.

And after 43 years, I still find myself unable to accept that company as evidence of a professional wrestling product.