Thursday, July 26, 2007

Thoughts On Wrestling History, A&E Special & Book Review: National Wrestling Alliance: The Untold Story of the Monopoly That Strangled Pro Wrestling

The history of pro wrestling is a subject that is near and dear to me for a lot of reasons. Pro wrestling was never a business that relished its past as much as it should have. As a result, many important facts, figures, personalities, footage and stories that shaped this uniquely American creation called professional wrestling have vanished into the mists of time.

In 1996, I was contacted by a producer from a company called Actuality Productions. They were working on a TV special for the A&E Network which they described as a 2 hour history of professional wrestling and they were looking for people to assist them on this project. I asked the producer, Bob Ziel and his boss Chris Mortenson, how they viewed the project, what they knew about pro wrestling and what their notions about it were. Ziel said that he had very little knowledge of pro wrestling and had no preconceived ideas about it. Chris Mortenson said that he wanted to do the subject justice and not simply make fun of it. For me, that was the right answer, and I provided them with names, phone numbers, sources of footage, photos and advice. I even convinced a few people that they needed to participate.

After all, here was a TV network that was going to devote two prime time hours to the history of pro wrestling, what better opportunity would the legends have to tell their story.

I was unexpectedly asked by the producers to appear on camera in the role of "wrestling historian" to provide some commentary to fill some gaps in the special.

The end result was a program called "The Unreal Story of Professional Wrestling" and when it first aired it was the highest rated program in the history of the A&E Network. I believe it is their largest selling home video of all time.

While the special was criticized by many for being inaccurate and leaving out many key figures, I thought that it was well produced and a decent thumbnail sketch of how we got from what pro wrestling was to what it is. No one is going to get a history of 100 years of anything 100 percent right in two television hours.

"The Unreal Story" did make an invaluable contribution to the business of pro wrestling. It made millions of people aware that pro wrestling did indeed have a history. It proved that people were just as interested in the past as they were in the present. And an imperfect history often breeds other attempts. "The Unreal Story" spawned the interest in more TV specials and documentaries, books by former greats and the marketing of older footage into videos, DVD's and the creation of WWE's 24/7 Video On Demand service.

A&E still shows 'The Unreal Story of Professional Wrestling" from time to time. I am very proud of that special for what it was, and just as proud for what it inspired.

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I just finished reading "National Wrestling Alliance: The Untold Story of the Monopoly That Strangled Pro Wrestling" by Tim Hornbaker, published by ECW Press.

If you are an aficionado of wrestling history or someone who is interested in the subject, this book is an essential volume in your library of wrestling literature.

It tells the story of the National Wrestling Alliance, formed in 1948 by a group of promoters who were being frozen out of booking key talent by the wrestling syndicates and cartels of the day. The NWA sought to be a fair governing organization that not only shared talent with its members and friends, but sanctioned a single set of World Champions and built a positive image for the sport.

By the 1950's, the NWA became the preeminent authority in pro wrestling. It boasted roughly 40 member promoters worldwide at its peak. In becoming the powerhouse conglomerate it turned into, the NWA promoters employed some of the same tactics it was formed to combat, such as blacklisting of wrestlers who took sides against member promoters. It also used questionable tactics to stifle competition against its members.

These practices brought complaints, which eventually brought the attention of the Federal government to the NWA, and a 1956 investigation into anti-trust violations. The case was settled by the promoters signing a "consent decree," which acknowledged past unfair practices and promised not to engage in them past that point.

Tim Hornbaker's book chronicles this period well and the book is a treasure trove of information on the key figures of the era, many of whom would be totally unfamiliar to today's fan.

Just reading about the roles of men like Sam Munchnik, Pinkie George and the true father of pro wrestling, Joseph "Toots" Mondt, make this book a must-read.

The 372 page volume, while generously packed with information, is not without its flaws.

The book suffers, in my opinion, from being too ambitious. While trying to cover every aspect of the NWA from its formation to its decline to it's current incarnation, some of the information is glossed over or not given the proper depth or context.

For example, when discussing the current incarnation of the NWA, Horbaker does not explain the difference between the territories of old, which were full time offices, and the independent promoters who banded under the NWA banner under the late Dennis Coralluzzo, who were all small, part time operators.

Some of the book's subjects cry out for volumes of their own. Toots Mondt and Pinkie George are just two of the figures that I wanted to know more about. Ditto Vince McMahon Sr. This I don't consider a flaw, but the real triumph of Hornbaker's book. It gives you a lot of food for thought, but leaves you wanting more.

In spite of its shortcomings, "National Wrestling Alliance" is an important book I would recommend as being absolutely worth your time.


Rochelle said...

Can you recommend some good books to read about the history of women in wrestling?


Anonymous said...

noticed that this book mentioned my late uncle Anthony "Bert Bertolini". I only have fond memories of him as a young girl. I remember him bringng wrestlers to my parents house in Harrisburg, PA Those times were alot of fun. I understood he was a matcher in wrestling. Does any one else have any other stories about him.

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