Orlando Sentinel – July 15, 2001
By Ric Russo
ESPN Classic Professional Wrestling Features Footage From The Heydays Of The Rough-and-tumble Giants.
Are you a fan of “old-school” professional wrestling?
Do you yearn for the days when grapplers with monikers such as Killer Kowalski, Moose Cholak, Gorgeous George and Andre the Giant ruled the ring?
If so, tune in to the ESPN Classic network on Saturday morning. If getting up at 7 a.m. on the weekend isn’t part of your routine, just program your VCR because you’re not going to want to miss any of the exciting action.
ESPN Classic Professional Wrestling is a one-hour program that features vintage footage of men in tights from a period when JumboTrons, pyrotechnics and flaming, barbed-wire baseball bats weren’t part of the show.
It’s from a time when pro wrestlers actually relied on wrestling — mixed in with a little theatrics — to attract an audience.
The veteran wrestlers from the era call it “shoot-style.”
“This choreographed tumbling that goes on now wouldn’t have cut it back then,” says the legendary Lou Thesz, who wore several of pro wrestling’s world championship belts during his career.
“Professional wrestling was very different. The guys competed against each other . . . it was driven by competition. Nobody wanted to look bad. We all took pride in our craft, which was wrestling.”
The library that ESPN Classic draws from dates back to the 1950s and runs through the ’70s. Pro wrestling has been a staple for the network for one year. Most of the wrestlers are recognizable names to even the most casual fan.
Here are highlights from some recent episodes:
Grainy black-and-white footage from 1954 showing the flamboyant Gorgeous George battling “Jungle” Jim Londos. On the same program Killer Kowalski — the man who trained current World Wrestling Federation superstar Triple H among others goes up against Ed Carpentier.
A handicapped match from 1972 with the 7-foot-2, more than 500-pound Andre the Giant taking on three opponents. He squashes them all and steps over the top ring rope on his way out of the ring.
A violent match between Killer Karl Kox and Dick Murdoch from 1968. Kox and Murdoch are considered two of the best and toughest brawlers of all time.
Coming soon perhaps: bouts from the ’80s when Hulk Hogan’s run as WWF champion brought the sports entertainment industry to new heights.
“We’re always looking to expand our collection of tapes to get more variety of professional wrestling styles and characters,” said Fred Christenson, director of brand management for ESPN Classic.
“Last month [June] was the first time ESPN Classic has been included in the television ratings system, so I don’t know how many viewers tune in each week. I do know that most all of the feedback we get about Classic Pro Wrestling is very positive.”
If the ratings prove to be as positive, a better slot might be in the future.
“We are thinking about moving it to Saturday afternoon or early evening,” said Christenson, whose first job at ESPN back in 1987 called for him to edit footage of World Class Championship Wrestling, a Texas-based promotion that featured the Von Erich family.
WCCW broadcasts aired weekday afternoons on ESPN. Christenson’s job was to make sure the programs’ content wasn’t too offensive.
“Professional wrestling can be very edgy so you have to be careful,” he said.
Don Beitelman, who wrestled professionally as Don Curtis in a career that spanned 20 years, first heard about ESPN Classic Professional Wrestling when a neighbor mentioned seeing him on one of the broadcasts.
Back in the ’60s, Beitelman formed a formidable tag-team with “Maniac” Mark Lewin. The duo captured several regional and world championships during their prime. Classic Professional Wrestling recently featured several bouts from the days when Lewin and Beitelman ran roughshod through the competition.
“Mark and I wrestled all over the world and went up against some of the best tag-teams in the business,” recalled Beitelman, a star amateur wrestler at the University of Buffalo before he turned pro. “We played off the good-guy, bad-guy storyline back then too, but we still wrestled.”
Beitelman isn’t a fan of today’s pro wrestling style, but he does keep up with some of his contemporaries from his days in the squared circle. At least once a year a group called the Cauliflower Club — an organization of retired pro wrestlers — gets together to tell old war stories.
“We talk about days gone by. We rarely talk about what’s going on now in professional wrestling because none of us watch it much anymore,” Beitelman said. “It’s a shame what they’ve done to it . . . I can’t bring myself to watch it anymore. It just makes me sad to see what they’ve done to it.”
“It’s garbage. They shouldn’t even call it wrestling anymore because there’s not much wrestling going on at all,” he says. “Just give me the old tapes and I’m happy.”
Tune in Saturday and watch Moose Cholak enter the ring wearing a moose-head, hence the name. It was part of the psychological warfare the wrestlers tried to use on each other as a form of intimidation.
Kox says the mind games that once played such an important part of the professional wrestling business are lost on most of the performers of this day and age.
“If they would just take more time to work the crowd and make them feel like they are involved in the action I think they would have a better show,” Kox said. “It certainly worked for us back then.”
If you don’t believe him, tune in Saturday.