Pro Wrestling Gets a Grip on Popularity Again

Times Staff Writer

They categorize themselves as heroes or heels. They wear outrageous garb--spiked dog collars, Scottish kilts or leopard skin tights--and call themselves names like Junk Yard Dog, Superfly, Hulkster, the Iron Sheik and Rowdy Roddy.

They are America’s new darlings, in person and on TV. They are professional wrestlers.

They may have faded from the big time in the ‘60s, but they’re back--this time with a vengeance and the biggest national media hype since the Hula Hoop.

Where the Action Is

The new pro grapplers started their promotional assault back East in 1983 under the direction of Vincent K. McMahon, head of the World Wrestling Federation, but recently they’ve taken on the West Coast territory, turning the Los Angeles area into one of their fast-growing markets.


“The whole West Coast is coming alive with wrestling,” longtime pro wrestling figure Capt. Lou Albano said in a phone interview from his New York home. “It’s a spectacular.”

Whether you believe pro wrestling is sport or spectacle, its hoopla is not new. It’s just being reborn with the help of more live shows and television saturation--local, cable and now network.

Each Saturday in the Los Angeles area, for instance, you can watch morning and nighttime wrestling shows on KHJ-TV, and if you have cable, another eight hours of it, starting at 6:30 a.m.

Nationally, NBC just began airing a World Wrestling Federation pro wrestling show, “Saturday Night’s Main Event,” once a month in the “Saturday Night Live” time slot.

Big-name wrestlers appear in matches once every month at both the Sports Arena and Olympic Auditorium, and the crowds are growing.

The Anaheim Convention Center held its first professional wrestling matches in February and sold out.


“It’s just become a real phenomenon,” said Larry Robinson, box office manager at Anaheim. “TV’s what’s making it. The TV people have figured out what the American people are watching and they’re causing it to happen. We had 8,900 seats for wrestling in February. And we filled them.”

But current promotions aside for a moment, credit really should be given to the pioneer of gimmicks in big-time pro wrestling in the 1940s and ‘50s, George Wagner, who died in 1963 of a heart attack at age 48.

Fans will remember him as Gorgeous George, the international wrestling star who introduced panache and ballyhoo to the mat game and made a fortune at it.

George wore his hair marcelled in bleached-blond curls and dressed in an orchid velvet robe. Before he got into the ring, his valet sprayed perfume from an atomizer and rolled out a red carpet for George to walk on. George then threw “Georgie pins,” gold-colored bobby pins, to the crowd. His valet would assist him in curling his locks before match time.

George, who also was nicknamed “the Human Orchid,” would have fit right in with these newcomers.

Ahead of His Time

“Gorgeous George was way ahead of his time,” Red Bastien, Western states agent for the World Wrestling Federation, said. “Gorgeous George was the first in line to introduce showmanship into sports.”

And Gorgeous George did his hyping on his own. Imagine if he had the Hollywood film and rock star connections some of the wrestlers have today.

Three-hundred-pound, 6-foot-8 Hulk Hogan, the country’s current most popular wrestling hero and the WWF heavyweight champ, began to catch the public eye nationally when he appeared as a guy called Thunderlips in Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky III.”

Nowadays, Hulk is wrestling’s No. 1 draw, makes about $1 million a year and has Hulkster T-shirts, headbands, toys, posters, and heaven knows what else on the market. An animated series based on Hulk and some of the other WWF stars will appear this fall on CBS Saturday mornings.

Another of the WWF’s Hollywood connections is rock star Cyndi Lauper, who “manages” the WWF women’s champion Wendi Richter. Lauper got wrestling’s Capt. Lou Albano, a former wrestler turned manager and actor, to play her father in her 1983 MTV video release, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.”

Albano, 52, who’s been in professional wrestling since the late 1950s, has just completed a major role in an upcoming movie, “Wise Guys.” He also plays Lauper’s father again in her just-released video, “The Goonies.” Albano is joined by a gaggle of other current stars, Richter, the Fabulous Moolah, the Iron Sheik, Nikolai Volkoff, Rowdy Roddy Piper, and manager Freddie Blassie.

Lauper also sometimes appears at Richter’s matches, depending on her own performance schedule, and guest spots have been done by other entertainment and sports personalities, among them the A-Team’s Mr. T., Liberace, artist Andy Warhol, New York Yankees Manager Billy Martin and Muhammad Ali.

Popularity Champion

But the Hulk is the reigning popularity champion.

In February, when the Hulkster topped the card at the Sports Arena, he sold out the house, 15,121 seats. He is now on tour in Japan, where wrestling also is enjoying a newfound popularity.

Good guy Hulkster, a former Florida body builder who used to perform as Sterling Golden, heel, doesn’t just wrestle in Japan, either. He also plays the guitar. According to the WWF, Hulk had a song in the top charts in Japan last year, and a new collection of his songs is supposed to be released there this summer.

“We have a whole international division now,” said David Fargnoli of the WWF, based in Greenwich, Conn. “The guys wrestle a lot overseas. It’s really big in Japan. They eat it up. And in Kuwait, too.”

So much for Kuwait. But who’s watching here?

Just about everybody, it seems. Men, women, children. Even yuppies.

“It’s supposedly now the new upscale sport,” Mayra Crespo, director of research at KHJ-TV, said. “Yuppies, kids. What they claim is that they’re bringing a different audience to it. It’s just a modern version of the Christians versus the lions.”

KHJ-TV officials have no complaint about the WWF ratings.

According to the latest Nielsen ratings kept by Crespo, Channel 9’s 11 a.m. Saturday show registered 162,800 homes; late night wrestling, 66,000 homes.

“It’s basically a pretty young audience,” Crespo said, explaining the recent Nielsen breakdown of viewers--45% men, ages 18-49; 30% women, 18-49; 20% teens, 12-17 and 5% children, 2-11.

An Edge on the Market

In some areas of the country, professional wrestling, no matter who’s producing it (McMahon’s WWF/Titansports seems to have an edge on the market), outdraws football, basketball and professional tennis, both at live matches and on television.

“We’re the third largest drawing sport in the United States,” said Red Bastien, 54, who has been representing the WWF on the West Coast for two years. Minnesota-born Bastien, a wrestler from 1955 to 1980 (“I was rather durable”) recently moved his base of operations to Los Angeles from the Bay Area.

“We’re only after auto racing and horse racing as far as attendance goes,” Bastien continued. “Football, basketball and baseball are seasonal sports. Wrestling goes year around, 365 days.”

McMahon took over WWF in 1982 from his late father, Vince Sr., and decided to go for a national concept. He now bills WWF as “the rock and wrestling connection,” and, so far, hasn’t had much trouble selling his fare.

McMahon is, however, troubling to wrestling promoters across the country in his attempts to nationalize the WWF. In the old days, wrestling was, by agreement of the country’s regional promoters, a territorial enterprise.

When he ran the WWF, Vincent J. McMahon Sr. kept his promotions confined to the East Coast, mainly New York, and kept the peace with other promoters working out of the Midwest, the South and the West.

Some Promoters Angered

Current president McMahon, not available for an interview, decided to go for a national scope, angering some promoters and persuading others to line up with him.

“Vince’s father adhered to the territorial concept,” said Bastien, who worked for the elder McMahon in the 1950s and later became a small promoter in the Bay Area. “But Vince is not encumbered by those regional boundaries, so to speak.”

Bastien said he firmly believes that “Vince is just doing what everyone else wanted to do. It’s like lots of other things. One time there used to be a lot of small farmers, with 20 acres, 40 acres. Then the co-ops came in and bought them up. Look at the oil companies and the food stores. They buy up the little ones. Wrestling isn’t any different from those.

“And wrestling is big time again. It’s reached a new height because of Vince’s marketing genius. Vince says he doesn’t have enemies; they do.”

Bastien thinks McMahon’s nationwide promotion of pro wrestling eventually can help smaller promoters.

“There is still room for the other guys,” Bastien said. “If anything it’ll help them. A classic example--we’re going to Portland, Ore., and a promoter there is already increasing his business. He recently ran a show that drew $100,000.

Bastien went to work with McMahon’s revamped WWF “because I was recovering from surgery (he had both hips replaced) and my business was dormant.”

Bones Take a Beating

No matter what you think about professional wrestling, whether it’s a sport or theatrical entertainment, according to Bastien, wrestlers do get hurt sometimes, and their bones take a constant beating from being smashed on the canvas.

“One of the most common problems in later years is with hips and shoulders,” he said.

Right now McMahon seems to have few problems and to be riding the crest of the wrestling wave.

In addition to the NBC Saturday night wrestling on a once-monthly basis and the coming Hulk cartoon series, WWF has two shows each week on New York’s WOR-TV that can be seen across the country; three a week on the USA network and a nationally syndicated weekly wrestling talk show. And all sorts of T-shirts, posters, hats and other WWF paraphernalia to be sold at events. WWF publishes its own bi-monthly magazine.

By far, though, McMahon’s biggest promotion came in “WrestleMania,” a superhyped March 31 live show from a sold-out Madison Square Garden.

For that promotion, Mr. T., a former high school wrestling champion in Chicago, got into the ring as the Hulk’s tag team partner.

WWF officials estimated that nationwide “WrestleMania” reached about 1 million people in the designated closed circuit theaters and arenas and on a pay-per-view cable TV in homes. It grossed about $12 million.

You might know who won, the good guys, of course. Mr. T. and Hulk unmercifully beat up the kilted Rowdy Roddy Piper and Paul (Mr. Wonderful) Orndorff.

The Sports Arena offered the closed-circuit event here that night and sold out, too.

“We turned away 3,000 people,” said Nancy Nichols, marketing director for the Sports Arena and Coliseum. “We sent 3,000 people to the Long Beach Convention Center because we couldn’t handle them, and they sold out, too. It’s a funny phenomenon. It’s crazy. It’s a broad audience. You see guys coming in here in three-piece suits, kids, everybody.

Monthly Wrestling Card

“The amazing thing is that they (the WWF) don’t do any local advertising,” Nichols added. “They do it all on their TV shows.”

Since the WWF opened its monthly wrestling card at the Sports Arena in October of 1984, crowds have run from 5,000 to 15,000, depending on what celebrities are wrestling, according to Nichols.

“The size of the crowd really relates to who is here,” said Nichols. “Paul Orndorff--he’s gone from being a bad guy to a good guy--will be here June 12. And Rowdy Roddy. So advance sales have been really good. The people want to see them.”

Recently, officials at the Olympic Auditorium lined up their own new wrestling promotion. On June 29, they will feature a card of National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) stars, including the current NWA heavyweight champion, Rick Flair, in a feature match with Magnum T.A.

Also on that card will be Dusty Rhodes, “the American Dream,” versus Tully Blanchard, who will have a woman named Baby Doll in his corner. For those who haven’t heard of Baby Doll, she is billed as “the perfect 10.”

Blanchard, 30, grew up around pro wrestling and wrestled and played football in college, like many current pro stars. His father, Joe Blanchard, was a wrestling headliner from the ‘50s and ‘60s who later became a small promoter out of San Antonio with his Texas All-Star Wrestling group.

Reached by phone, the senior Blanchard said that although he has a wrestling show on 15 TV stations in the area, he can’t compete with the big three promoters, McMahon of WWF, the NWA (a group made up of Jimmy Crockett of Mid-Atlantic Wrestling and several other promoters) and Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Assn. out of Minneapolis.

A Heel Turned Hero

Last spring, Gagne and some other Midwestern promoters got together and formed a group entitled Pro Wrestling USA.

Gagne managed in January to lure the popular heel-turned-hero Sgt. Slaughter, in Los Angeles this week to film a Western Union commercial at the Olympic, away from the WWF. But that’s tit for tat, it seems. Hulk Hogan, who used to wrestle for Gagne, left for the McMahon camp.

“You’ve either got to be big or little,” Joe Blanchard said. “You can’t be in the middle. And we can’t compete with the big three who have that kind of money to provide first-class shows. If a guy had $10 million, then he could go crack the market.”

Blanchard encourages son Tully, he said, to go wrestle where the money is and supported his decision to join Crockett, from North Carolina, and the NWA.

“He should get syndicated and go the route,” Blanchard said of his son. “Big tours, big arenas, big promotions. He’s looking at a shot at making $1,000 a night. Why, I can’t afford to hire my own kid. Maybe if I could guarantee him $4,000 a week for three years.”

Still, Blanchard conceded that McMahon and his revamped WWF have “done a lot. Certainly he has caused a lot of national attention to focus on wrestling. Last summer, Time magazine came down here to talk to us, and our wrestlers ended up filming a movie, ‘Blood Circus.’ It’s just finished.

‘Throwback to Youth’

Lester Kerschner, who runs the Olympic with his partner, Mario Thomas, thinks the whole new wrestling craze is “a throwback to people’s youth, and will good triumph over evil. I don’t think Cyndi Lauper and all that silly stuff contribute anything.”

The WWF wrestlers drew good crowds at the Olympic, though, Kerschner admits, before they moved over to the Sports Arena in October. “We had some sellouts and did very well,” Kerschner said. “We were exposed a lot on TV, and TV is crucial to wrestling.”

“Wrestling is great value for the entertainment dollar (both the Olympic and Sports Arena price tickets at $6, $8, $10 and $12),” he said. “It’s a sports entertainment show with a basic formula that appeals to gut level, to politics--Americans versus Iranians and Russians. And you get a broad range of people.”

Last year, Kerschner said, the Olympic once drew “a busload of lawyers, as well as young kids, middle-class. People from the San Fernando Valley and the Westside. It’s a yuppie deal. Go to the wrestling matches in your BMW. And its upper middle class to low income. There’s no one income group or target audience.

Last month, at the WWF’ Sports Arena show, you could, if you’re old enough, sit at ringside, close your eyes and swear it was 1955, not 1985 at all.

Pro wrestling may have a new merchandizing image, but the fans don’t seem a whole lot different. Oh, there were some guys in suits and nice casual wear, but they were outnumbered by those in jeans and polyester.

On the whole, the crowd--about 6,500--was a rowdy, beer drinking group, and many of them threw objects into the ring, just like their counterparts did 30 years ago. Some fought among themselves or tried to grab or punch the wrestlers on their way in and out of the ring. Security is heavy to prevent injuries to the mat stars.

“It’s more dangerous for the wrestlers than the fans,” Red Bastien said. “The wrestlers are unarmed. Some of the fans aren’t. A person could have a knife or something. That happened in the old days. I’ve seen guys knifed or hit. And the flying objects. They always do that. And it spoils it for everyone.

“It perturbs me no end,” he added. “I think the fans should show some restraint. They should holler and scream. But fans should take some responsibility when they go to sporting events. Stay in their seats and not throw things, or use foul language and smoke dope. Buying a ticket does not entitle them to throw things and ruin it for everyone else.”

Beer rained down occasionally on Houshang Broumand in his ringside seat, but nothing seemed to ruin the evening for the 9-year-old wrestling fan.

Broumand, who lives in Beverly Hills, had posters of Richter, posed in a bikini, and of his hero, the Junk Yard Dog. He wore a Dog T-shirt, too.

“I love it,” Broumand said. “Ever since I first saw it, I loved it. It’s a great sport.”

During the tag team match featuring Jimmy (Superfly) Snuka and Ricky Steamboat as the good guys, Broumand pleaded aloud with Superfly to do his famous flying body press, which entails leaping from the top rope in a flying motion to land on top of his opponent.

“Come on, Superfly, do it,” screamed the youngster.

Eventually, Superfly, a star from Fiji, performed his trademark to the delight of Broumand.

In the next match, Broumand jumped up and down a lot.

‘Hit Harder Next Time’

“Hit her harder the next time,” he yelled as Wendi Richter dropped the Fabulous Moolah to the canvas. Moolah amused the crowd by arriving in her trademark sunglasses with rhinestone dollar signs. She also has dollar sign earrings and boots emblazoned with the sign.

Later in the match, when Richter had Moolah down again, Broumand berated the referee. “She knows how to count, ref,” he screamed.

His father, Kam, smiled at his son and said, “Oh, he’s a real fan. We go to all the matches. He even took me to New York just to see the wrestling.”