Something I’ve been obsessing over the course of the pandemic are the ways in which wrestling fans “see” wrestling. We’re restricted, at the moment, to the broadcast version of wrestling, shot by a finite number of cameras and edited live to the specifications of a company’s house style. It’s fine—it’s how most of us engage with wrestling, at least—but when I say we’re restricted, I mean it. It’s stifling, looking at wrestling as dictated by a production truck. Worse, it’s boring.
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Given that boredom, and given that I won’t be going to a live wrestling show for the foreseeable future, I’ve found myself going analog. I’ve been collecting old wrestling magazines for a few years now—one of the pleasures of small market indie wrestling is the flea market nature of the merch tables—but like most things I collect, my pile of magazines—and eventually candid and professionally taken photographs—grew without much purpose.
But now, with a surplus of spare time, I am going through them—magazines from the United States, Mexico, and Japan, photographs from the 70s, 80s, and 90s—and falling in love with wrestling again to a degree I didn’t anticipate.
Seeing the unseeable.
Wrestling magazines, at least American ones, exist in a strange realm, half fiction and half fact. I suppose you could say that wrestling exists in this realm, the entire enterprise being at once fictional and documentarian—real bodies do real things in real space and time, but for the purpose of creating a narrative reality that’s just a little different than ours. The phrase “suspension of disbelief” gets thrown around a lot in industries like wrestling, but when you look at a photo of a crowd at a wrestling show, that isn’t what you’re seeing. The laws of physics don’t stop working, bodies aren’t suddenly immune to pain. If wrestling required one to temporarily shut off the knowledge that the sport is fake for it to work, it would have died in the 1930s.
Professional wrestling is a collision of realities—call ours what you will, call wrestling’s “kayfabe.” Even in 2021, kayfabe is alive and well: Look at the bubble universes constructed by various professional wrestling companies where COVID-19 never comes up in storyline, where a wrestler or an executive has to say “hey guys, it sucks that you’re not here, but our show must go on.” Wrestling can be—and often is—influenced by the real world (see Dusty Rhodes’ “Hard Times” promo), but it has to separate itself from reality, despite how utterly contemporary its means of production make it, because it’s ultimately ill-equipped to parse the socio-political underpinnings of events and concepts like Operation Desert Storm, terrorism, and civil rights movements.
So wrestling crafted its own history, dipping its hands into the muck of the world and fashioning cartoon versions of things feared and celebrated by people who could be parted from their money to see one fight the other. Wrestling has held space for cartoon Nazis, Soviets, cops, gangsters, pimps, Satanists, cowboys, Native Americans, and on and on and on, and most of those characters have a lineage of some kind—one of the Koloffs brings their cousin over from Lithuania, the Von Erich boys try to make good on their dad’s turn from “evil German” to proud Texan, and so on.
The thing is, most of this lineage is hard to track, and not because of the transient nature of wrestling gimmicks and character alignments. Footage of weekly television shows and arena supercards is often hard to trace beyond the mid-70s. The VCR wasn’t introduced in the United States until 1977, so the preservation of wrestling footage was up to promoters who often didn’t see the value in keeping reel after reel of film organized, or keeping it at all. So unless someone was able to pick up a few reels on the curb on garbage day, entire histories of wrestling were liable to disappear.
Except for this: a separate archive, in the form of third-party wrestling magazines. This history stretches back to at least 1946, which saw the publication of the first issue of Wrestling As You Like It, a magazine that profiled the comings and goings of the top wrestlers of the time and revisited the major events of decades prior. This is the template a lot of magazines, including Pro Wrestling Illustrated, Sports Review Wrestling, and Inside Wrestling, followed, so if you were a young wrestling fan in 1985 captivated by Dusty Rhodes’ Hard Time Blues Tour, you might catch a photo or two of a 1977 match between him and “Superstar” Billy Graham, or his Texas Outlaws tag team with Dick Murdoch, and come away with an entirely new understanding of your favorite wrestler in the process.
I’m romanticizing a little here—based on the buckets of blood shed on the covers of these magazines and the “apartment wrestling” pictorials some of them ran, they were often aimed at adult fans—but the magic of these magazines is absolutely real. If you lived in Florida, Inside Wrestling might be the only way to find out about some young kid named Chavo Guerrero tearing it up in California. If you lived in Detroit, which got NWA television, but couldn’t make it down to The Omni in Atlanta to see the non-televised “Last Battle of Atlanta” cage match between Tommy Rich and Buzz Sawyer, Sports Review Wrestling had you covered. When a wrestler moved from one territory to the next, Pro Wrestling Illustrated didn’t forget the history of that character, even if their new promotion did. It was history, both real and unreal—here’s the story as they’d like us to believe it happened, and here are the photos for proof.
The Last Battle of Atlanta
Let’s look at The Last Battle of Atlanta as an example of how wrestling magazines function as historical documentation. Held in 1983, under the auspices of Georgia Championship Wrestling, this steel cage match between “Wildfire” Tommy Rich and “Mad Dog” Buzz Sawyer has the distinction of being maybe the most famous wrestling match in the history of Georgia. That’s despite the fact that, at most, around 20,000 people had seen it, one time, through a haze of booze, cigarette smoke, until WWE discovered it on an unlabeled reel of tape in 2016 and put it on the WWE Network.
How does a match like that get lost? Beyond the generalizations I’ve already made, it’s pretty easy. Jim Crockett Promotions, GCW’s neighbor to the north, was a month away from changing wrestling with its first Starrcade event, so at the time (and for sometime after) supercards at major arenas were mostly untelevised, and television wrestling shows functioned as a tease for something you had to see to believe. That doesn’t mean they weren’t filmed, but a lot of the footage from shows like this are shot with a single, static camera, no commentary, nothing but crowd and ring noise—something antithetical to the idea of broadcast wrestling going back as far as wrestling’s television debut.
Further complicating things is that GCW was about a year or so out from its sudden sale to Vince McMahon, who, early in his quest to conquer professional wrestling, wanted the company’s timeslot on Ted Turner’s TBS and apparently didn’t ask after the tape library. When the WWF bombed on TBS, Jim Crockett Promotions took the slot, their sloppily kept archives merged with GCW’s sloppily kept archives, which eventually became WCW’s sloppily kept archives, which WWE didn’t really start digging through until they had a streaming service to fill.
So you have this match, but only by its reputation and, the television that led to it, and a smattering of bloody cover photos. WWE claims it as the predecessor of Hell in a Cell, something dreamed up based on a handful of photographs in a wrestling magazine. That’s an incredible story in its own right, but forget WWE and what they gleaned from those photos. Forget the fact that you can watch the match right now if you want to. What I care about, the magic of this match, is how it lived in the general consciousness of professional wrestling for over three decades as a couple thousand words and a dozen or so photographs spread out between a bunch of third party magazines.
Moreso than outlets like The Wrestling Observer Newsletter, magazines like this, coverage like this is what inspires me as someone whose interest in wrestling is more focused on the narrative of matches and storylines than on business or or a vaguely scientific critical analysis of good wrestling. The writing is a little crude—”The Last Battle of Atlanta” article frequently reads like a parody of an old-school sports columnist—but considering that this match was thought lost until 2016, and considering the number of matches these magazines covered that never made a tape that could be lost, I’m willing to allow them the atmosphere. Here’s a clip:
The mighty sound system of The Omni blasted forth a song: Elvis Presley’s version of “My Way.” Billows of smoke punctuated by six red spotlights highlighted the dressing room area. Tommy “Wildfire” Rich was slowly making his way toward the ring.
Tears were seen to flow from the eyes of ringside fans as the first words of the song sent chills down their spines: “And now the end is near, and so I face the final curtain.”
If you were reading wrestling magazines in the 1980s, if you lived in Georgia or were lucky enough to get their television, you understood the significance of Rich entering to that song. The match being the “Last” Battle of Atlanta was not just clever nicknaming: It was the end of a two year long feud, one that made Rich one of the most loved wrestlers in the country and Sawyer one of the most hated. It really was the final curtain, win or lose. And given WWE’s reticence to pay for clearance of the popular music frequently chosen as entrance music, you still can’t see the match as presented. You have to take the word of the (bizarrely uncredited) ringside reporter and hear the music/imagine the tears of the fans for yourself. It’s beautiful, it’s cheesy, and if it weren’t for these fragments of history, they’d mostly be lost.
Oh yeah, the photography.
One of my main pleasures in covering AEW is choosing which photographs to use in the recaps. Right now, AEW has one photographer, Lee South, and every Thursday we’re sent a zip folder of the best shots he took the night before, which I assume were pared down by him as he edited his photos to make them usable on the internet. While GIFs and video clips are fine, I still find photographs the most engaging. They are a slice of time, an instant, captured. The sweat, blood, and exertion that goes into a match is unavoidably visible. The contact of flesh on flesh is in plain view. An example:
The above is a photograph from a fairly famous match-turned-shoot, as Antonio Inoki got fed up with The Great Antonio treating him like a joke, picked his leg, and kicked his face until it was raw and bloody. Here’s how the above shot looked as it was broadcast:
I don’t have to tell you that the photograph that appeared in Gong has more intimacy than the broadcast version of the kick. The television camera is set back in the audience. It’s a camera that pans left and right for the most part, zooming in occasionally. The ringside photographer, by contrast, is ringside. His gear is smaller, too, so he can shoot from strange angles like the one in this shot, which is under the bottom rope. The video quality of the match as uploaded to Dailymotion wasn’t great, obviously, but where Inoki’s face is obscured by distance, Gong‘s photographer was able to capture the New Japan patriarch’s full on rage. He’s not just kicking a man while he’s down—he’s measuring those kicks. He wants them to hurt as much as possible.
The Great Antonio, for his part, is convulsing on the mat, though he’s about to go still. While you can watch those convulsions as they happened, the still photograph is, to me, the more grisly version of events. If a photograph is a slice of time, then this is a hell of a slice, a man kicking another man’s head, a body going limp, and so on. Watch all six minutes of Inoki/Antonio and it’s kind of a snoozer. See this match as a series of photographs, and the mundane has the potential to be iconic.
It’s a strange dichotomy, but it’s one that exists in pretty much all sports where there’s a broadcast version and a photographed version. There’s the slam dunk the commentator claims posterized the defender as shown on television, and there’s the shot taken by a photographer that becomes the poster. In the same way, Antonio Inoki can either kick a guy or kick a guy. The act is documented either way, but I love the way photography can transfigure an act of performative violence. I love that there are thousands upon thousands of pages of this photography that I can flip through. I love that it changes my eye, makes me a better viewer of this thing I’ve loved for my entire waking life. I want to see wrestling through as many eyes as possible. Wrestling magazines offer me that opportunity, a dozen or so photographers at a time.