Sunday, November 6, 2011

"Death" of a wrestling fan

     After closely following American professional wrestling for over 27 years, this fan's interest has pretty much died.

     I was born in 1968 and grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, the backyard of Verne Gagne's American Wrestling Association.  As a young boy I did not have any interest in professional wrestling.  I do recall during the late '70's hearing the names of various wrestlers such as  Gagne, Mad Dog Vachon, Dusty Rhodes, and the High Flyers.  I remember taking a family vacation to visit relatives in upstate New York during the summer of 1980 and hearing my older cousins talking about the WWF and  being very excited about Hulk Hogan.  I first saw Hogan when he appeared in Rocky III in 1982.  None of this peaked my interest however.

   Everything changed one fateful Sunday morning during the summer of 1984.  I was 15 years old.  I'm not certain of the exact date, but it must have been sometime in July.  I just happened to come across the AWA's All Star Wrestling show that aired at 11:00 am on KSTP channel 9.  There they were, Animal and Hawk, the Road Warriors.  I stumbled into a brief clip showing them destroying two jobbers.  I was immediately captivated by what I was watching.

Road Warriors
     You could say that my life literally changed the moment I saw the Road Warriors on TV that Sunday. After the show was over I could not get the Road Warriors out of my mind.  I sat in complete silence, digesting what I just witnessed.  I quickly read through the TV guide to figure out when All Star Wrestling would be on next.  All week long I eagerly anticipated the next show.  I was hooked.

     Over the next few weeks I found myself fixated to the TV when All Star Wrestling was on in the hopes of seeing Animal and Hawk.  I was gradually introduced to other wrestlers such as Jerry Blackwell, Curt Hennig, and King Kong Brody.  I also found out from a friend that a rival promotion, the World Wrestling Federation (which I will refer to as the WWE from this point forward), had a TV show that aired on Saturdays at 6 pm.  He told me about this exciting wrestler named Hulk Hogan, the same guy my cousins watched years earlier.  Because of my weekend schedule I could not watch the WWE until a few months later (this was in the era before every house had a video cassette recorder).  Therefore, I headed off to the local 7-Eleven store in the hopes there would be some wrestling magazines there.  Boy, was I surprised.  7-Eleven carried several "Apter" magazines.  Not only did I get to see pictures of the WWE stars, but I was introduced to a whole new world of wrestlers from other groups such as the NWA and WCCW.  Although the AWA was the only show I could see on TV, I soon became a regular at the magazine rack just so I could keep up with all the other organizations.

     None of my good friends were into wrestling, so I convinced my Dad to take me to my first live event.  The AWA presented a card at the St. Paul Civic Center on August 12, 1984 headlined by the Road Warriors vs. the World Tag Team Champions Baron von Raschke and The Crusher.  Never mind that the old guys won (and The Crusher didn't sell at all), I still had a great time.  My Dad, at the time a college professor, made the keen observation that the audience resembled the same people we saw once a year at the State Fair.  We also attended the October 21 card that included a tag team Battle Royal.  It was also around this time that I saw the WWE on local TV.  I have to admit, I was impressed with the production quality.  No question, it was superior to the AWA.

     Beginning in 1985 I noticed that some friends were also taking an interest in wrestling.  Pretty soon I found myself attending the monthly WWE cards at the old Met Stadium in Bloomington, MN (which has since been demolished.  The famous Mall of America now resides there).  I was following the escapades of guys like Piper, Orton, and Hogan.  I quickly realized that the WWE was about show and entertainment more than sport which never really sat well with me.  Still, I was constantly amazed at the talent that was jumping to the WWE.  Wrestlers that I had only read about in the magazines were now showing up on WWE programming.  It was clear the WWE's national expansion was well underway and it was fascinating to observe the build for Wrestlemania I (which by the way I did NOT get to watch.  I was dragged that Sunday on a school field trip to see Death of a Salesman).

Ric Flair
     In 1986 I graduated from high school and started attending a local liberal arts college.  By now I was obsessed with wrestling.  I had never really been passionate about anything as a kid up until I discovered wrestling.  Throughout college I continued to attend monthly WWE  events.  I dutifully bought all the pay per views, read every magazine I could get my hands on, happily gave away $2.00 a minute to hear day old news on 1-900 lines, and drove for hours on several occasions to attend WWE TV tapings.  By now I had access to cable television and at one point there were 9 hours of wrestling on TV each week and I tried to watch all of it.  While I closely followed the WWF, I was not really a fan of the WWE.  I was always somewhat turned off by Vince's version of wrestling with all the silly gimmicks.  I found Hogan a somewhat unbelievable champion.  I got my fill of "real" pro wrestling by studying the matches of credible guys like Flair (the anti-Hogan), Windham, and Rotundo.  Nevertheless it was intriguing to see the rise of the WWE and the landscape change with the closing of the regional territories.  I also began to take notice of the death of several young wrestlers like David von Erich, Rick McGraw, and Gino Hernandez.  I started to realize that there was more to wrestling than presented on TV and in the "Apter" mags.

     As crazy as it sounds (and it does to me in hind site), I did three academic projects during my college years dealing with wrestling.  I wrote a paper for an English class addressing the morality issues displayed within professional wrestling.  I convinced my  Drama class professor that attending a WWE show satisfied the class requirement of attending a play (he agreed that wrestling was modern theater).  I also gave a well received presentation to my Speech class on the cultural impact of wrestling.

Greg Valentine
     It was also during this time that I discovered a great place to meet wrestlers was in airports.  Although I didn't travel a lot as a college student I managed to get the autographs of Rockey Johnson,  Big Boss Man, and Greg Valentine at airport terminals (I patiently waited outside the Men's room to get Valentine's at the Pittsburgh airport).   I was on a plane once with One Man Gang (he took up two seats) and Rick Martel (I told him I approved of his heel turn on Tito Santana).  Randy Savage refused to give me his autograph saying "not now little man!" At 6'0" and 200 lbs (natural, no steroids) I thought his description of me was fair.  I got the future Governor of Minnesota to give me an autograph when he played golf at the Country Club where I worked.  As it happened, his golf glove accidently on purpose (Bobby Heenan language) made its way into my pocket.

     The fall of 1990 was a pivotal time for me a wrestling fan.  I started Medical school and the time demands limited my opportunities to attend live events and watch wrestling on TV.  For the first time in years I went more than a week at a time without closely following wrestling.  In the spring of 1991 this would all change.  My Dad, the college professor who brought me to my first live event in 1984, told me about a young college student named Wade Keller who published a wrestling newsletter.  On a whim I subscribed to the Torch.  Suddenly I felt my interest as a fan was rekindled.  I was able to more closely follow the wrestling business.  I was now a "Smart Mark".  I felt I was on the inside of the business and enjoyed having a level of knowledge the average fan did not.  I started watching wrestling on TV again, ordering selected pay per views and going to the occasional live event.  Soon I was turned onto Dave Meltzer's Wrestling Observer, a newsletter I have received for the better part of the last 20 years.

     In 1994 I moved to Wisconsin where I would spend the next 6 years doing my medical residency and subsequent fellowship.  It was during this time that my loyalty to wrestling were first tested.  I thought WCW programming in 1994 featuring Hogan & Friends was beyond horrible.  WWE TV was no better with the "New Generation" campaign.   These were painful times.  I never cared for hardcore wrestling and ECW.  I began having no problem skipping weekly TV shows.  I completely stopped ordering pay per views.  I did continue to read the Torch and Observer faithfully.  The historical pieces and behind the scenes news still captivated me.

     My interest was again peaked in 1996 with the Hogan turn and birth of the NWO.  While WWE programming was still largely unwatchable, I did enjoy WCW Nitro.  Not only did I like seeing former WWE guys showing up, but it was also my first real exposure to the luchadors and guys like Benoit, Guerrero, and Malenko.  I started following the Monday Night Wars closely.  It was interesting to see the  WWE getting some competition for the first time in years.  But alas, my interest was short lived.  I think a combination of things contributed to my loosing enthusiasm for the product.  I could see the hardcore influence of ECW making its way into the big two.  I also really didn't get excited over the very popular WWE Attitude Era beginning around 1998.  I found Vince Russo's crash TV philosophy unbearable.  I didn't find Vince McMahon's bathroom humor funny.  The beginning of the new millennium was a dark period for me as WCW and the WWE seemed to go out of their ways to turn me off more and more every week.  I was relieved when WCW died in 2001.

     For the better part of the last decade I have tried to distance myself from the WWE version of wrestling.  Same goes for TNA.  I no longer watch wrestling on TV (I did go out of my way to see the Ric Flair retirement on RAW and the Old School RAW).  I have tried to get my fix through other avenues.  I read selected books (I highly recommend the books written by Jim Wilson, JJ Dillion, Ole Anderson and Bret Hart).  I ordered several old WWWF dvds over the internet which I enjoyed (this was the era before Vince Jr.).  I continue to read the Wrestling Observer (I stopped receiving the Torch around 2000), but will admit that with the passage of time there seems to be less and less I'm interested in.  The sections on TNA and WWE seem to increasingly have names of characters I've never seen or heard of. Were it not for the historical pieces, excellent obits and reflections on the state of wrestling I would probably save my money and let my subscription lapse.  I used to spent a lot of time on the internet trying to stay current.  Now I limit my time to the Observer site and Greg Oliver's Slam! Wrestling.  The only times I visit the WWE site is to see how they handle the death of a wrestler and around Hall of Fame time.  The one subject that does continue to hold my interest is the premature deaths of so many wrestlers (the impetus for the Wrestling with Death blog). 

     I appreciate wrestling when it is presented as "fake sport".  I want the athletes to be credible in the ring.  I want the action to be plausible. I want the titles to be valued.  I want the story lines to have a meaningful start, middle and finish.  The angles to make sense.  The programs to serve a purpose.  The gimmicks kept to a minimum.  I wish for the booking to have internal logic and consistency.  I want to be able to watch it without having to shield the eyes of my wife and two daughters.  Finally, I wish to be entertained without being insulted.

     I have come to realize that the wrestling I long for is gone, never to return.  I didn't outgrow wrestling, wrestling changed.  The business has gone too far in the direction of pure entertainment leaving me behind.  I also realize that my opinion just doesn't count.  At my age I am not the target audience the WWE or TNA is trying to reach.   

Photographs are for illustrative purposes only.  Wrestling with Death does not claim ownership.


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