Time – February 16, 1959
Q. What becomes of old, broken-down wrestlers?
A. Nothing. They are still wrestling.
Half fact and half fancy, the old gag is not really funny—not to wrestlers, at any rate. Out on the grunt-and-groan circuit the oldtimers are still working because the old act is still packing them in. Flabby characters who once had the lean, handsome muscle of the stock-company hero now fill in nicely as villains. And week after week, in more than 300 arenas across the country, the good guys tangle with the bad guys in the stylized, make-believe mayhem that has made professional wrestling one of the most prosperous trades in show business. Says bulb-nosed, cauliflower-eared Joseph (“Toots”) Mondt, the 12-year veteran of the mat and now one of the most successful wrestlers’ agents: “You don’t see punch-drunk, slap-happy wrestlers. I know at least 60 of them that got out of it rich, and no more harm to ’em than cauliflower ears. This ain’t like other sports.”
As a matter of fact, pro wrestling ain’t even a sport. It has not come close since the mid ’30s, when the public began to tire of watching such “shooters” (honest wrestlers) as Jim Londos the Golden Greek and Ed (“Strangler”) Lewis sweat through stolid hours of dull, defensive wrestling. Then, as the gate receipts began to fall off, the beef trust made a discovery: wrestling fans are suckers for fancy holds with fanciful names. Any one of the new maneuvers could have wrecked a man for life; yet everyone kept his health. It was obvious to the simplest fan that the bouts were fixed. But the crowds began to come back, and from a dead sport grew a new branch of show business.
No More Queens. In the post-World War II heyday, when everything on television was new and attractive, pro wrestling boomed. Desperate for new acts, new gimmicks, promoters began to push such gaudy huskies as “Gorgeous George,” a marcelled, peroxide blond who made the sham slaughter seem even more ridiculous by his coy shenanigans in the ring and out. “The queens are passe now,” says Columnist Jimmy Cannon, but wrestlers are still getting away with their hammy histrionics, still faking pain, anguish and angry violence with steady success.
Now, whether the night’s show is in Washington, D.C. or Houston, St. Louis or Bridgeport, it is still a staple on TV.
The average card has a tag match (two-man teams with the members taking turns mauling each other) that eventually degenerates into a crowd-pleasing, pier-six free-for-all. Midgets may be there to jazz up the act. Here and there, where lenient local authorities permit it, women wrestlers appear to slap each other around. Someone is sure to take a mean-looking poke at the referee (an illegal maneuver in Missouri); someone is sure to heave someone else through the ropes (never over; that, too, is frowned upon).
Comin’ & Goin’. As wrestling styles have changed, so has wrestling’s audience. The joints are filling up with women fans. “It’s natural, ain’t it?” asks Mondt. “Women like to look at well-developed fellas.” They seem to like to crowd close to ringside, curse the villains, cheer the heroes, and punctuate the performance with strategically planted hatpins. In Manhattan, where wrestling fans bought out Madison Square Garden seven times last year and caused two small-scale riots, the most popular musclemen make up the tag team of Antonino Rocco and Miguel Perez. Rocco does so well that he is the highest paid wrestler now in the racket. He owns a ranch in Argentina and earns close to $180,000 a year. At least ten others, Mondt insists, make $80,000 or more; the majority earn between $18,000 and $25,000.
Even the bush-league hams who stick to the tank towns eat high on around $12,000 a year. Everywhere the violent routine is just about the same: drop kicks that could snap a man’s neck if the act were honest and they really landed in the face, bullet heads pounded boomingly against unyielding ring posts, ear biting, eye gouging, hair pulling, and plain, old-fashioned strangling.
The elaborate pretense that all this nonsense is on the up-and-up is carried into all levels of wrestling. The actors themselves insist that no one writes a script for them. Carried away with enthusiasm for the cash they rake in, agents and matchmakers join the chorus. “You oughta see the casualty list,” says Mondt. But there are a few practitioners who have escaped to higher arts, and they are prone to tell it straight.
“Many years have passed since my rasslin’ days,” said the late Herman Hickman, who tried grunt-and-groan for a while before he graduated to football coaching, “but I know there have been few legitimate professional matches since Theseus laid down the wrestling rules in 900 B.C. I even have my doubts about whether that historic match between Ulysses and Ajax was a shoot. I still don’t think you can get a better night’s entertainment than you will by seeing your favorite hero tangle with a villain. This plot has had the longest run in show business, so it must have something.”