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The Phantom of the Ring
Phantom – Preaching to the Choir
.The Phantom reviews Drawing Heat the Hard Way By Larry Matysik, ECW Press, 259 pp., paper, $19.95.
Larry Matysik, author of Wrestling at the Chase, tantalizes us with a new book, which, despite its title, is actually “The Wrestling World According to Larry Matysik.”
And what’s wrong with that? Matysik is a joy to read and one can take comfort that he knows whereof he speaks, having been in the business in some form or another since 1964, mostly working for Sam Muchnick, the Poobah of St. Louis and President of the NWA during its glory years.
So what does Larry have to say for himself this time around? Well, his new book is a primer on how wrestling should be run: how it should be booked, how its workers ought to work a match, and how it should reach out to the fans, who can turn out to be most fickle if things are not done properly.
The title is a reference to how the game has changed over the years from working to posing in order to get heat. In a great passage Matysik points out how matches used to open for the overwhelming part with the wrestlers locking up and bulling for advantage. Now, many matches simply open with a kick to the gut. I checked it out on some recent episodes of Raw and darned if it wasn’t true. Where a wrestler worked to get his heat in the past, today they stand on the second turnbuckle and pose when they hit the ring. In the past very few wrestlers used entrance music; now it’s a necessity. Matysik’s criticisms are as refreshing and necessary as they are obvious.
The only problem with this analysis/advice, however, is that wrestling has changed so dramatically from the days when Sam Muchnick was booking that it has become ultimately unrecognizable to some old school fans. When wrestling went to the bigger muscle-bound physiques, something had to suffer, and that was the ability to work a match for long stretches. It no mattered how well a wrestler worked, or sold a move, it was how he looked while doing it, or not doing it, for as the toll of backbreaking schedules and hardened bodies from too taking too many steroids, plus the effects of muscle relaxers and recreational drugs on the conscious mind took a firm hold, the art of pure kayfabery, so to speak, was lost with it.
There are other reasons in addition to the changing bodies. Cable-TV over saturated the market, promoters depended too heavily on ambiguous finishes that made the fans feel cheated. There is also another change Matysik notes, one that appears subtle in comparison, but which has damaged the wrestling scene, and that is the superstar wrestler buying his own promotion and pushing his kids as its stars. Sometimes, it works, as with the Von Erichs, who were blockbusters for a couple of years. Sometimes it doesn’t work, as witness Greg Gagne, who could never muster the following or the believability of father Verne. And then there is the promotion that needs the kids to work in order to supply bodies, the Hart’s Calgary promotion. Each has helped and hurt the business more than by having a neutral promoter control the territory. One exception to this rule is the Sheik’s Detroit promotion, where, even though The Son of the Sheik was a wrestler in the organization, he was saddled with the handle of Captain Ed George and never let anywhere near the U.S. title because the Sheik was such an egomaniac.
But there is one force that has not affected wrestling for the better, and, although I get the feeling that Matysik wants to blame him, he simply pulls away before firing the across the bow shot. That person is Vince McMahon, the person that made the artificial body and the lousy work rate the standard. Matysik notes Terry Funk’s dissatisfaction with WWE television because everything was so tightly choreographed. Bump, high spot, bump, high spot, go home. Well, it’s gotten even worse since Terry last worked there. Another facet of WWE Matysik dislikes is the overemphasis on the character skits. What he overlooks is that WWE is no longer booked by wrestlers or former wrestlers, but by a staff of writers with little or no experience of the product. The biggest blow was dealt when Vince came out and said the whole thing was not a contest, but simply entertainment, and all this to avoid a tax on each ticket for a sporting event.
All that aside, the book is great fun to read and will remind the reader of the days when wrestling was wrestling. I often wonder, would MMA be so big today if wrestling had not deteriorated so?
This was received by Karen who, in turn, decided to turn it over to me:
I am curious… was women’s wrestling considered more “real” in the Twenties, Thirties, Forties and Fifties? IF so, at what point did it become more staged and taken less seriously?
It seems to have been considered “legitimate” at one point. But, I can’t really find the research to back this up. Thanks!
As long as professional wrestling has been around there have been questions asked as to its veracity. It has undergone repeated “exposures” from time to time in the Media, both from outside and inside (as when a wrestler or promoter fesses up). With women’s wrestling, it was considered even less on the level than the men, in part because of its longer time underground in the world of the carny, and because of our uptight sexual stance as regarding anything where two women are fighting.
As regards the carny, there were times when it was worked and times when it was a shoot – if there was an opportunity to make a buck, whether honestly or not, said opportunity was always taken. As an example, say Mildred Burke is taking on all comers one night. Now, usually following a challenge from the audience there comes the inevitable side bet by a backer or backers or the challenger. So, Mildred may defeat her first challenger and her people clean up on the bet. Now she gets another challenge, from a Gladys Gillem. What the audience does not know is that Gladys is in cahoots with Mildred. Gladys beats Mildred in a close but decisive match. Mildred issues a challenge right then for a rematch. The betting starts, and the “bookie” is offering 3-2 on Gladys. If enough bettors go for Gladys, the match will be hard fought and close, but Mildred will win. This is why betting was banned at mainstream wrestling matches and why states required matches to be publicly billed as exhibitions. As for the carny, I’m sure it still continuers to this day with the “AT” show in some states, though carnivals have become a lot more legit thanks to greater law enforcement oversight.
However, fans always believed wrestling to be on the up and up, whether women’s or men’s, and wrestling was worked and promoted in such a way as to make that argument a strong one. I remember a June Byers-Penny Banner match from the 50s where both worked the mat so well that even the most stringent critic would be hard-put to definitely say it was a fake, even though it was worked. When we debate “shoot” versus “work,” we are really discussing the twin issues of control and cooperation. In the days before what became to be known as “the Trust,” wrestlers and their managers had a sit down before the match to discuss terms. Because earning power was at stake, in order for me to throw my title to, say, Earl Caddock, I would have to be liberally compensated and given a chance for a rematch where I would win the belt back. If terms could not be agreed upon, or if one or even both participants smelled a hook (double-cross), the match became a shoot. When a promoter, or group of promoters, controlled the action, wrestlers didn’t have to worry about missing a paycheck, diminished earning power, or the possibility of a double-cross. The criteria for a rematch changed from athletic to theatrical – from a pin or submission to how said pin or submission was delivered, and if the ref saw it, or if the ropes were used as an aid, etc. Before the advent of the NWA, the only way this cooperative trust between Trusts was broken is if one promotion was trying to move in on another and the better wrestler double-crossed, or “hooked” the lesser.
Women’s wrestling was controlled by Billy Wolfe in cooperation with the NWA. Wolfe was married to Women’s champion Mildred Burke, and when the two divorced it became a financial mess. An agreement was reached whereby Wolfe would leave the biz and Burke would take over. (More on that in a future column.) But in wrestling the promise was rarely, if ever, worth the paper it was written on, and Wolfe was soon back in the game with a new champion in the form of June Byers. Trouble was – Burke hadn’t been dethroned. A championship bout was set and both women were on their guard. It was probably the last shoot in a title match or any other match, as both grapplers were on the lookout for a hook by the ref, timekeeper, athletic commission, or even the hot dog vendor, depending on the level of paranoia reached.
As time passed, women’s wrestling split into two camps: those promoted by Wolfe and those promoted by Fabulous Moolah, who found a backer in Vince McMahon, Sr. Wolfe’s share eventually filtered down to various promoters, each of whom had his own star. Moolah trained her future adversaries at a school outside her hometown of Columbia, South Carolina. She wasn’t a good worker and matches in her promotion amounted to little more than hair-pulling brawls with emphasis on comedy. The other women’s promotions often lacked for workers. It was Mildred Burke, however, who changed the face of women’s wrestling forever when she hooked up with the Japanese promoters and began training future Japanese stars. The Japanese aimed their product not at the male audience, but the teenage girl audience. This audience embraced the product wholeheartedly and Japanese women wrestlers emphasized athletic ability as well as good looks.
Despite the obvious flaws in Moolah’s style of working, fans continued to see her product as on the level because of the strong code of omerta that not only dominated the wrestling business, but also the wrestling media. Wrestling magazines and fan shows on the radio emphasized the reality of what went on in the ring. To cut a long story short, it was only when Vince McMahon, Jr. de-emphasized the reality in favor of the entertainment that the cat was finally out of the bag, though these is still a small minority that continues to believe.
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– The Phantom of the Ring
– Courtesy of ProWrestlingDigest.com
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