Monday, October 7, 2013

The History Of Professional Wrestling As Entertainment

By Rhea Solomon

The history of professional wrestling is the story of theater imitating a sporting event. A story line is woven giving an emotional reason for fighting. Who wins and loses is a scripted part of the show. Often the script is good versus evil. Both sides suffer losses as well as wins. Wrestlers use traditional skills of holds and throws. They perform daring acrobatic maneuvers and improvise weapons. Female wrestlers use the good versus evil script, with the added thrill of skimpy costumes.

Wrestling is loved by fans, and hated by its detractors for violence and phony battles. Story lines are built around big, mean looking guys. Rules are broken. Cheating is commonplace. Audiences are encouraged to jeer and cheer. Fans find the story immensely entertaining. And no audience fights break out in the stadium, or the parking lot.

Fights as entertainment were popular in 19th century Europe, and as sideshow exhibitions in North American carnivals and vaudeville halls. A traveling carnival strongman would encourage locals to fight him in the ring. Challengers rarely won against experienced fighters with a knowledge of hook holds. It didn't take long to realize that betting on the outcome was where the real money was.

In the late 1800's events were moved to arenas similar to boxing matches. There were many individual promoters and championship belts. The first association was the NWA, a loose organization of regional promoters, formed in 1901.

Matches became increasingly sophisticated in the 1920's This was the beginning of time limit matches, catch matches, tag teams, and signature moves. Tag teams developed the ruse of distracting the referee so they could cheat. Wrestlers signed long term contracts. Promoters developed more soap opera-like story lines.

The 1930's saw cutthroat competition as regional organizations competed for territory and talent. After World War II, the NWA grew in stature. Promoters agreed to regional territories with defined boundaries. There was an informal agreement to not lure talent away from competitors.

In the 40's and 50's, television increased the popularity of this entertaining "sport". As the market contracted in the 60's and 70's, cutthroat competition again became the norm. Today WWF, renamed WWE in 2002, is the largest company in the business. Vince MeMahon was a forceful businessman who succeeded in buying out most of his competitors. He negotiated profitable TV network and pay-per-view contracts.

Another league that had a major impact was ECW which popularized ladder matches, and the use of chairs as weapons. They popularized the flying leap from the top rope and crashing into tables. Eventually bought out by WWF, the popular hardcore stunts became a regular part of the story.

Prominent companies in business today are TNA, Combat Zone Wrestling, and Ring of Honor. In Mexico the top associations are Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre, and Asistencia Asesoria y Administracion. In Japan the top competitors are New Japan Pro Wrestling, All Japan Pro Wrestling, and Pro Wrestling Noah.

Today this billion dollar industry collects revenue from ticket sales, television broadcasts (network and pay-per-view), internet and web shows, branded merchandise, and home video. WWE attracts 13 million viewers and broadcasts event in 150 countries. This entertaining "sport" is especially popular in Japan, Central and North America, and Brazil. Popular wrestlers become cultural icons. The history of professional wrestling is a story still being written.

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