Fanfyte will son be ending its wrestling coverage, and while I’ve gotten to cover some of the stranger corners of wrestling, there’s so much I haven’t gotten to. For a Fanfyte farewell, I thought I’d cover … all of it. The whole thing. All of wrestling. So here it is, the whole thing. The entire history of professional wrestling.
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We begin in the boring times, where sport overshadowed showmanship and wrestlers had yet to embrace sequins, HGH and painting little spiders on their head beneath their mohawks. Wrestling dates back to ancient Greece, about 3000 BC is the first record of wrestling being a thing, but they were nude and there weren’t any high spots, so let’s fast forward a handful of millennia to 1848 where wrestling first became a performance art.
In 1871, catch-as-catch-can loosened the rules of Greco-Roman wrestling and became part of the carnival circuit. Carnies, besides the small hands and cabbage smell, are known for their subterfuge, like making “marks” (sound familiar?) with chalk on the backs of rubes who would dump money into rigged games. The wrestling sideshow was no different, as promoters would stir up local “dumm oafs” to step right up and face a real life “professional wrestler,” only for them to get hooked into a quick pin, usually after the pro fought a bunch of jobbers to make him look more winded than he actually was.
Champions of this era included Martin “Farmer” Burns, Evan “Strangler” Lewis, “Le Colosse” Paul Pons, The Great Gama and “Terrible Turk” Yusuf Ismail (who nearly drowned to death after falling overboard on the SS La Bourgogne, dragged underwater by his heavy Championship belt).
The Estonian strongman Georg Hackenschmidt, an absolute unit, had such decisive victories that his theater kid manager, C.B. Cochran, taught him to lean into the showmanship a little during tours of opera houses and dancehalls to grab the attention of the mythical casual fan. Georg (it’s Georg, not George – an Eddy/Eddie kinda thing) gained fans like Teddy Roosevelt and Harry Houdini as the first World Champion after a victory over Tom Jenkins.
Frank Gotch became the first “Aaaaaameeeericaaaan maaaaaade” World Champion, possibly due to a screwjob finish. Hackenschmidt injured himself during training, possibly attributable to promoter Jack Curley, who also banned him from local gyms due to a refusal to do public workouts (and show his injury). However, Hackenschmidt claimed he was 100% and lost in under thirty minutes (a short match for the era), so in reality, Georg screwed Georg.
Frank Gotch’s popularity made wrestling a big thing in America, with over 30,000 packing Comiskey Park for the 1911 rematch.
1920s & 30s
After defeating dominant World Champion Joe Stecher, Ed “Strangler” Lewis teamed with Billy Sandow and Joseph “Toots” Mondt (nicknamed “Toots” because he was a cutie-pie) to form the Gold Dust Trio, who basically invented all the cool stuff: tag teams, time limits to prevent boring three-hour matches, flashy moves like the dropkick, and storylines and angles. Stecher coordinated another screwjob, where veteran carnival wrestler Stanislaus Zbyszko used his old tricks to shoot on Lewis’ new champion, Wayne Munn (a football player with a limited wrestling background) and bring the title back to the Stecher brothers.
Eventually the Gold Dust Trio dissolved and Lewis focused on managing the sexy-ass “Golden Greek” Jim Londos as the top star of the 1930s.
In the UK, no-holds-barred “All-In” wrestling was basically the Attitude era with weapons and mud wrestling before being outlawed and replaced with a more dignified style by the most British-sounding man ever … [clears throat, proclaims] Lord Admiral Edward Ratcliffe Garth Russell Evans, 1st Baron Mountevans, KCB, DSO, SGM.
1940s & 50s
The 1940’s gives birth to the NWA. Before it was William Patrick Corgan’s vanity project, it was the governing body of wrestling. Touring World Champions the legendary shooter and future carpet salesman Lou Thesz were decided by a committee of nasty old white men, and toured through the various territories across North America, while wrestlers invade newfangled television screens in between cigarette ads.
Gorgeous George becomes the “toast of the coast” tossing “Georgie Pins” from his salon hair to jeering fans as his valet Jeffries perfumes the ring with Chanel No. 10. Other stars like “Wild” Bill Longson, barefoot wonder Antonino Rocca, numerous people named French Angel, Mildred Burke, “Mr. Hair Dye” Mick McManus, 600 lb. country boy Haystacks Calhoun and Terrible Ted, the wrestling bear!
Traditionalists in post-war Japan worry about their national and cultural identity, but wrestling is one western import that stirs Japanese pride, thanks to the popularity of Japanese icon Rikidozan (lol, he was Korean). He wrestles in some of the highest-profile matches in history, until he’s stabbed with a piss-soaked knife by the yakuza at a nightclub, and while he’s still able to sing “Mack The Knife” at karaoke that night, he dies a few days later. (Though, according to this incredible video game clip, sometimes he floated down from heaven to wrestle.)
Salvador Lutteroth continues to build lucha libre with his EMLL promotion (now CMLL), as well as Arena Mexico, where luchadores don colorful masks (and never take them off, not even to kiss) for acrobatic chain wrestling popular with niños y abuelas. El Santo & Blue Demon basically become Superman & Batman in a film career where they fight: the mafia, karate fighters, zombies, witches, evil brains(?), The Blob, Martians, headhunters, vampire women, she-wolves, sex lepers(?), The Strangler, the ghost of The Strangler, Frankenstein’s daughter(?) and Satan.
1960s & 70s
Verne Gagne’s inability to unseat Lou Thesz leads to the creation of the midwest-based AWA in 1960, promoting the likes of polka lovin’ “saloon goons” The Crusher & Dick the Bruiser and the sesquipedalian Nick Bockwinkel.
Vince McMahon Sr. creates his own world title in 1963, but after the first WWWF Champion Buddy Rogers has an alleged heart attack, Bruno Sammartino wins the gold and becomes the biggest draw in the northeast for two decades, before starring in Saloonatics, alongside Pedro Morales, lunatic history buff Bob Backlund, and feather boa enthusiast “Superstar” Billy Graham.
Meanwhile, NWA had a murderer’s row of great in-ring talent hold their World Championship in the 1970’s. Dory Funk Jr., Terry Funk, Harley Race, Jack Brisco and the plumber’s son who embodied the American Dream, Dusty Rhodes.
The landscape begins to change with the first black main eventers like Bobo Brazil & Ernie Ladd. Villains like Freddie Blassie & The Sheik, and smaller attractions like Cowboy Lang and Sky Low Low. Plus, giants like the UK’s Big Daddy and French fart enthusiast and “immovable object” Andre “the Giant” Roussimoff (a tall man with taller tales) become iconic stars.
Two of Rikidozan’s students, Giant Baba (profoundly tall) and Antonio Inoki (profoundly weird) debuted on the same show in 1960, and wound up leading Japan’s two rival wrestling promotions. Baba’s AJPW leaned to a more western influence called the “King’s Road” style, while Inoki’s NJPW emphasized “fighting spirit” in realistic proto-MMA matches, including an infamous bore of a battle with Muhammad Ali. AJW presents joshi wrestlers like Jackie Sato.
[CUE: “Hungry Like The Wolf” or whatever, it’s the 80’s]
The NWA’s territory system continued for the first half of the decade with Jerry Lawler dominating Memphis (even against Andy Kaufman) and The Von Erichs in Dallas (before a string of tragedies). Whimpering hornball Ric Flair, made a full plane crash recovery to defeat Harley Race and become the “limosine-riding, jet-flying (????), kiss-stealing (????????????)” persona that inspired multiple generations of rapers. Sorry, rappers.
Vince McMahon takes over the WWF in 1982, and withdraws from the NWA, taking on rival promotions city-by-city, raiding talent like AWA’s Stallone-adjacent steroid aficionado Hulk Hogan, and TV slots like the beloved Georgia Championship Wrestling show on Ted Turner’s TBS (which was eventually purchased back to the NWA by Carolinas promoter Jim Crockett).
Embracing the campier aspects of wrestling allowed WWF to infiltrate MTV, attracting Andy Warhol, Debbie Harry and Cyndi Lauper, who managed Wendi Richter to (briefly) end Fabulous Moolah’s decades-spanning reign of terror (one of them, at least). After the successes of Manias both Wrestle- and Hulka-, the WWF becomes a pop culture juggernaut, as colorful WWF Superstars (and future Dark Side of the Ring subjects) like “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, The Iron Sheik, “Macho Man” Randy Savage, The Ultimate Warrior, and Jake “the Snake” Roberts became household names via Saturday morning cartoons, news reports, TV specials, music videos, morning shows, car commercials, soup commercials, beer commercials and blockbuster movies and cult classics.
In Japan, new stars rise like Tatsumi Fujinami, fairy tale fan Jumbo Tsuruta, TikTok star Riki Choshu, anime crossover Tiger Mask, shooters Akira Maeda & Nobuhiko Takada, and joshi stars Dump Matsumoto and The Crush Gals.
WrestleMania becomes an annual tradition, seeing a giant (suburban) Detroit crowd witness Hulk Hogan become the first man ever to slam Andre the Giant (unless you count Harley Race, Kamala, Stan Hansen, The Wild Samoans, Antonio Inoki, Strong Kobayashi, Riki Choshu, Butcher Vachon, El Canek, and, yes, Hulk Hogan). The wrestling fad spawns GLOW and Body Slam, and failed joint ventures between NWA and AWA, like Pro Wrestling USA. Despite an uptick in interest, and new stars like Sting, The Road Warriors, and The Four Horsemen, even Crockett’s NWA tentpole comes down, and the company gets a new owner when Ted Turner gets in the rasslin’ business, forming World Championship Wrestling.
Hulk Hogan’s so-called “acting” career kept him away from the ring for longer periods each year as WCW’s early hot potato management style brought top WCW stars to the WWF, while interest in the company slowly declined amidst behind-the-scenes sex scandals and legal troubles involving the distribution of steroids.
In Japan, NJPW was booming with new stars like Shinya Hashimoto, Masahiro Chono, The Great Muta, Big Van Vader and Jushin Thunder Liger packing the massive new Tokyo Dome with cross-promotional supershows, and really packing May Day Stadium with confused North Koreans ordered to attend.
AJPW kept up pace with five-star bouts from the “Four Pillars” of Mitsuharu Misawa, Kenta Kobashi, Toshiaki Kawada, and Akira Taue. Genichiro Tenryu’s Super World of Sports collaborated with WWF, the ultraviolent FMW featured bloody barbed-wire exploding ring spectacles designed by the literally-on-fire Atsushi Onita, and AJW had new stars like Manami Toyota, Bull Nakano, Aja Kong and Akira Hokuto.
More shoot-style promotions like Pancrase (featuring hot, sexy Suzuki) spawn Ultimate Fighting Championship, which applies the pro wrestling formula to real MMA fights, making stars out of wrestlers like Ken Shamrock and Dan “the Beast” Severn.
The place to be in the mid-90’s was MEXICO CIT-TAY (see above). Antonio Pena’s new AAA promotion, founded in 1992, created competition for CMLL with exciting young talent like Konnan, Rey Mysterio, Eddie Guerrero, La Parka, Juventud Guerrera, and Psicosis.
The WCW and NWA parted ways, so the historic NWA Championship was put on the line in a small Philadelphia promotion only to see it thrown down by Shane Douglas to herald Extreme Championship Wrestling, which embraced grunge, hip-hop, international talent, sex, and hardcore wrestling under Paul Heyman’s leadership.
Eric Bischoff, a former Target catalog model, took over WCW and built an undercard of young, athletic international stars while luring Hogan, Savage and others with very generous contracts, kickstarting the Monday Night Wars with WCW’s Nitro against WWF’s Raw, employing dirty tricks straight from from McMahon’s playbook. The nWo storyline turned Hogan heel alongside invading Outsiders and Dennis Rodman, before a slow non-vanquishing by the likes of a chaotic neutral Crow-esque Sting, the undefeated Goldberg, Diamond Dallas Page, and even Jay Leno.
Bret “The Genie of the Lamp” Hart’s real-life rivalry with “cokehead perv” era Shawn Michaels culminated in the the “Montreal Screwjob” where Vince McMahon flipped the script and ended Bret Hart’s WWF farewell his way, leading to him becoming an evil boss on TV, too! His top rival: a WCW afterthought named “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, who became a legend with a classic promo and a bloody double turn, defining an era that some would call “attitudinal” (not me).
Smiling cornball Rocky Miavia was transformed into the catchphrase-machine known as The Rock, and Tori Amos-loving “human pin cushion” Mick Foley put butts in seats. The Undertaker’s mythic feud with his libertarian brother Kane caused Satanic panic, the sophomoric D-Generation X became the bane of elementary school disciplinarians with their vulgar groin-points and precursors to “WWE Divas” like Sunny and Sable became mainstream sex symbols (however hard the Divas era was to get over), while Chyna blazed a new trail. And while the era is chock full of porn stars, pimps, numerous segments that age horribly and the tragedies of Owen Hart and Brian Pillman, it was, for better or worse, wrestling’s apex.
Stars like The Big Show, Eddie Guerrero and Chris Jericho prospered in the now publicly-traded WWF after escaping the sinking ship that was late-period WCW, mostly remembered for how rotten and nonsensical it was. (For more, please watch the “Viagra-on-a-pole” match.) In March 2001, the final WCW Nitro appropriately ended the WCW’s long legacy with a plug for that Sunday’s WrestleMania, which ended the Attitude Era with a match between The Rock and Steve Austin.
WWF “got the F out” and split the roster in two. Triple H married Steph and coincidentally dominated the WWE main event scene, alongside Olympic gold medalist Kurt Angle and sex exhibitionist Edge. New stars emerged during the decade: real life Red Hulk Brock Lesnar, thuganomist John Cena, “Thirsty Dave” Batista and the Meat Loaf-hating Randy Orton. Trish Stratus and Lita’s feud hit the main event, creating new fans.
WWE even revived ECW for a bit, which weirdly directly led into a PSYOP that saw Donald Trump as wrestling’s worst-ever hero, putting his hair on the line against Mr. McMahon, after WWE became nonstop presence on cable news after the sad death of wrestlers like Eddie Guerrero and the very, very horrible Chris Benoit… [trails off], leading (at the very least) to more drug testing and concussion research, and (of course) gross exploitation.
WCW stars not brought into WWE found a new home in [deep voiceover guy voice] TEEE ENNN AYYY, Jeff Jarrett’s new NWA offshoot, which brought high-flying X-Division stars like AJ Styles and Samoa Joe into the Impact Zone from the thriving independent scene of organizations like Ring of Honor, Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, CZW, Chikara, and Shimmer, which showcased wrestling’s future with the help of YouTube viral videos and social media. In Mexico, AAA continued to prosper, while CMLL were revived by big stars like Ultimo Guerrero and Mistico.
As Pride and UFC dominated legitimate combat sports more and more MMA stars enter wrestling rings. “Inokism” sold out NJPW’s top stars before a necessary course-correction, while Baba’s death led to an exodus from AJPW to Pro Wrestling NOAH. New promotions like Dragon Gate elevated the in-ring product, while HUSTLE and DDT catered to more niche audiences, with weird angles and bizarre dream matches.
WWE continued their dominance despite a steady decline in quality, and at its best, the company and WWE management were the heels against underdog stars. The Rock briefly paused his huge Hollywood career to slum it for a few matches. He wasn’t the only celebrity to step in a WWE ring, as Raw’s bizarre “guest host” era featured the likes of Jeremy Piven, Jared Fogle, MacGruber and even The Muppets.
Triple H took over developmental and transformed NXT from a car crash reality show to a sincerely great wrestling show, churning out new stars like Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins. The Four Horsewomen of NXT (Becky Lynch, Charlotte Flair, Bayley and Sasha Banks) finally, finally brought women to PPV or…ahem, WWE Network–$9.99 with a one-month free trial–main events.
Despite being PG, WWE continued to find new lows like their blood money deal with Saudi Arabia and the embarrassing Stand Up for WWE campaign, which did not secure Linda McMahon political office, but did fail her right into the Trump cabinet.
Impact fell to mismanagement by sweet tea sippin’ southern gal Dixie Carter and reality show and tabloid recidivist Hulk Hogan, who, ugh, somehow won $31 million for saying racist slurs and fucking his friend’s wife? And indie success story Ring of Honor was purchased by gross newsmedia company Sinclair, while wrestling as a whole had a lot of dark secrets exposed with the #SpeakingOut movement.
The indies’ train kept rolling, both in the U.S. and especially in the UK as RevPro, Progress and ICW created tons of new stars. And wrestling matches turned into weird telenovelas with Lucha Underground and campy “cinematic matches” from the likes of The Hardys and Bray Wyatt.
Stardom, TJPW, Gatoh Move and other joshi promotions continued to grow in Japan as NJPW hit a new golden era with the luxuriously coiffed Hiroshi Tanahashi, Shinsuke Nakamura and Kazuchika Okada, giving Dave Meltzer’s star-ratings an existential crisis. Bullet Club, a sorta-post-modern heel stable, became a huge hit with the likes of Kenny Omega and The Young Bucks raising their star value so much, it led to the creation of All Elite Wrestling.
THE 2020’s (which are now)
The COVID-19 pandemic threw wrestling into a huge spiral, as WWE held a fever dream WrestleMania in an empty gymnasium before moving to the mildly dystopian ThunderDome, an arena-sized Zoom meeting with fake cheers and boos. As crowds returned, WWE opted to buy stars instead of making them, as names like Ronda Rousey, Bad Bunny, Logan Paul and Johnny Knoxville stepped into the ring for more than just a one-off attraction.
AEW founder Tony Khan had a more normal solution, holding socially distanced shows outside of his father’s football stadium, making new stars out of indie names and the numerous talents released by WWE, as well as big signings such as Jon Moxley, CM Punk (gone from wrestling for nearly a decade) and Bryan Danielson.
NJPW went on hiatus and returned with distanced crowds that were not allowed to cheer, but celebrated their 50th anniversary with crossovers with AEW, Stardom and NOAH.
Very recently, Vince McMahon’s company-funded indiscretions finally took down a man with a career full of weird, dark shit. WWE’s corporate culture will take some time to improve, as McMahon’s still a majority shareholder and the company is in the hands of, to quote Punk, “his idiotic daughter and doofus son-in-law.” Even if they make huge improvements, it will still be a huge corporation (or will be bought by a bigger one).
The fall of Vince McMahon and the rise of AEW spell a much brighter future for wrestling, despite its many, many blemishes. But this sport … (s) entertainment is always going to be full of them, because it’s a circus, run by carnies. Like any sideshow attraction, no matter how bizarre, it will be hard to look away.