Any real wrestling fan respects Ric Flair more than Hulk Hogan, right? Maybe that’s not an absolutely true statement, but it’s a statement that will ring true for a lot of people who consider themselves informed about pro wrestling. It’s pretty close to the idea that the NWA and its affiliates were based on presenting great wrestling and they were good for wrestling, as opposed to the WWF/E which has ruined that great old-school style. That is the premise of the book Death of the Territories by Tim Hornbaker. In it, Hornbaker chronicles the rise of the World Wrestling Federation as the dominant force in American wrestling, tearing down the National Wrestling Alliance in the process.
Tim Hornbaker is a great researcher and his books (prior to this work, he’d released books titled National Wrestling Alliance: The Untold Story… and Capitol Revolution) bring together a lot of information that has been, before now, very difficult to compile. He’s building on the works of others, just as I’m coming at this history through Hornbaker’s work. At the same time, it’s important to see that there is a lot being left out of this history because this idea of the “golden age of the territories” throws its shadow over everything.
Death of the Territories focuses on the idea that Vince McMahon Jr is a forward-thinking genius that became the national czar of pro wrestling through his cunning strategies. The territory rulers who were part of the NWA did make mistakes, but Vince taking everything over is seen as inevitable because he was simply so much further advanced than the rest. A major part of this myth is the idea that Vince Jr was going to do things a lot differently than his father. To some extent, this was true. But the similarities between Vinces Jr and Sr, as well as between Jr and the other promoters, are a lot greater than Hornbaker gives credit to. The major difference between Vince Jr and the promoters he put out of business was one thing: money. Vince Jr spent his way into success. But as far as tactics go? He didn’t do anything different than what wrestling promoters had been doing for the past hundred years.
The dismantling of the AWA is one of the greatest achievements of Vince’s outward expansion. He’s famous for signing the AWA’s top star Hulk Hogan, along with many others like Gene Okerlund and Bobby Heenan, and then using those ex-AWA stars to draw the AWA’s fans away to support Vince’s WWF. While the AWA isn’t really a focus of this book, the tactics Vince used to demolish it would be replicated throughout the country such as in St. Louis against Larry Matysik and in Portland against Don Owen. Did these tactics work? Absolutely. Were they new? Absolutely not.
In the 1930s, the top star across the U.S. but especially in New York was called “The Golden Greek” Jim Londos. New York City wrestling at that time was overseen by promoter Jack Curley, probably the most prominent promoter in the country and the lead figure in the so-called Trust of wrestling promoters. The Trust was akin to the NWA, a cabal of promoters, but this was in a time before even the rigid Alliance territories had formed.
In 1932, Londos split from the Trust and returned to New York City in 1933 with the support of the Midwestern wrestling kingpin Tom Packs. The result? Instead of trying to take over the territory from the Midwest—difficult considering the slow speed of communication in the 1930s—Packs and Londos instead got cut in on the Trust deal. The ending is different because the times were different, but the basic maneuver is the same: run your town with your old star and draw all those fans. If Curley wasn’t hurting, he wouldn’t have given in to Packs’ and Londos’ demands.
More than that, though, it’s just common sense. It doesn’t take a genius to know that fans attach themselves to wrestlers more than promoters, and having a big star that your opponent has built up is a great way to make money in that town. This is not a masterful plan, it’s a textbook one.
Black Saturday is a properly dramatic name, isn’t it? And fittingly, it is tied to one of the grossest sins in WWF’s expansion: on Saturday, July 14, 1984, Georgia Championship Wrestling’s TBS show was taken over for the first time by Vince McMahon and the WWF.
It famously led to a backlash from the fans of that territory which led to TBS canceling on Vince and going back to an NWA group. Just like with signing Hogan and running him against the AWA, Black Saturday wasn’t an isolated incident. In fact, doing this was Vince’s M.O. He would buy TV slots in cities he wanted to reach into, very often buying the exact TV slot that the homegrown promotion was already using, and use that TV to build up interest. Running the opposition’s venues isn’t new either, though. Hornbaker himself, in his NWA book, documents how NWA patriarch Sam Muchnick got his start by running against Tom Packs in St. Louis’s Kiel Auditorium. Did the fans much care about who was running the show? No! Wrestling was at the Kiel, so they were going to the wrestling. It was the same idea behind Vince getting his claws into territories he didn’t yet control.
In the realm of television specifically, it’s difficult to find direct comparisons for two reasons. First, personally capitalizing on a wider range of TV was difficult due to the cost of running in different cities. Second, NWA members were scared stiff about the possibility of TV invasions from the very beginning, so they specifically created rules against this. Those with strong TV contracts, like Fred Kohler’s DuMont program in the 1950s and Jim Crockett Promotions on TBS, still had a great deal of influence, but they couldn’t yet become national projects. Without cable, and without the money to expand directly into other cities, the WWF could not have achieved what it did.
The idea that WrestleMania really put the WWF on the map is key to WWE’s depiction of itself and it’s key to this book as well, marking the moment when everything was obviously lost. WrestleMania was, and is, a spectacle event attended not only by big-time matches but also by fabulous celebrities. But Vince didn’t invent the idea of the wrestling supershow or of getting celebrities to boost the profile of a show. For the first, it’s pretty common knowledge that the first Starrcade (’83) was before the first Mania (’85), and big matches had been loaded up on many prior events such as the 1972 Superbowl of Wrestling. For the second, boxing champions Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis had many appearances on territory shows in order to draw interest. Yes, WrestleMania does have these other shows beat for scale, but this is because of the money put on the line for it.
All professional wrestling eventually rubs up against the regulations of the state and has to find a way around it. Vince McMahon’s tactic here was new in some ways, but he wasn’t any scummier than the NWA already was. The NWA dealt with pesky legal issues by gaining friends in high places. In fact, the NWA that we know was not the first major wrestling organization to have those letters. Before them was the National Wrestling Association, made up of members of state athletic commissions. Unlike the Alliance, the Association had actual governmental power, but during the rise of the Alliance, they got the Association to effectively hand over all control over pro wrestling to the Alliance. This wasn’t above-board in any sense. It was these shady links that let the Alliance keep doing things like blackballing wrestlers and making life hell for small-time anti-NWA promoters.
What was Vince’s innovation here? Outright lying. Firstly, he branded his offerings as “sports entertainment”, which on its surface seems to just show that wrestling isn’t “real” but also allowed him to argue that the WWF shouldn’t be subject to state athletic commission rulings that regarded sports. Regardless of whether or not wrestling is real or fake, the purpose of athletic commissions is to protect all people doing unarmed combat in their region. Using the fact that wrestling is pre-determined to say that it shouldn’t be subject to those rules is lying, using the fakeness of the result to mask the realness of the risk. Secondly, WWE claimed that its wrestlers were independent contractors, again to avoid having to comply with regulations. These “innovations” did save WWE money but they aren’t very cunning, they’re just lies, and they worked just as well as the NWA cozying up to politicians did.
Death of the Territories concludes with the war between the WWF and WCW ramping up, but I want to look past that at two other acts that Vince is commonly called a genius for: the Attitude Era and the Montreal Screwjob.
While it’s tough to say how counter-culture any wrestling promotions were before the 90s, one thing that can definitely be tracked is the use of excessive, crazy violence, and that is not new at all. Texas was well-known for using bloody matches to draw interest in the 50s, and business in Detroit rocketed upwards in 1964 when the Original Sheik took over and brought in his brand of histrionics.
As far as the Montreal Screwjob goes, it’s really a much tamer version of the types of screwjobs that happened before Lou Thesz became NWA champion, the most famous ones being Dick Shikat taking out Danno O’Mahony and Ed “Strangler” Lewis taking the belt from Wayne Munn. In these cases, we’re talking about a very skilled (shoot) wrestler taking advantage of someone who could only wrestle for show. But if you want to narrow it to the kind of ref-assisted chicanery that bamboozled Bret, Jim Londos was double-crossed once by a crooked count for Joe Savoldi and Ed Strangler was done in by Henri DeGlane claiming that Lewis had bit him.
So far, I hope I’ve shown that Vince McMahon never brought any out-of-the-box techniques to promoting wrestling. However, a current has been running throughout this piece that I don’t want to be overlooked. Even though Vince was the king of the bastards, that doesn’t mean the NWA or its members were clean. In fact, they were just as awful as Vince himself. Vince harbored Mel Phillips, it’s true, but the NWA harbored Billy Wolfe, and Wolfe may have been worse for the scale of what he perpetrated. Hornbaker’s NWA book gives a decent account of his career in both pimping and imprisoning women wrestlers. Not only did they harbor Wolfe, they treated women’s wrestling as its own territory and gave him control, meaning that all their members were supposed to contact Wolfe if they wanted to book women. While Mae Young is always described as a stick in the gears of Wolfe’s dominion, the Fabulous Moolah was one of Wolfe’s protégés.
In strict promotional terms, the NWA’s credibility was never much better. They were known to backstab promoters as the winds changed, as they did against Fred Kohler in Chicago, allowing other members to support inroads into that territory by Eddie Quinn and Leonard Schwartz (who was not even a member at the time). As this was the foundation of the NWA relationship, it is very difficult to imagine something that was more damaging to faith in the organization. It certainly ruined Kohler’s faith in it and, though he did remain a member, he was always antagonistic to many in the clique after that. The NWA blocked many people from joining, such as Nick Lutze and Johnny Doyle in California, and Mildred Burke who wanted to get away from Billy Wolfe and promote women’s wrestling herself. In fact, in Burke’s case, several promoters who tried to partner with her found themselves opposed by the NWA establishment. On the other hand, they were very inconsistent in their admission procedures, and allowed people like Schwartz to join even though he was running a territory already held by an NWA member, and Ed McLemore who was only allowed to join after surviving Morris Sigel’s attempts to run him out of Texas (essentially, McLemore was let in to avoid the situation escalating any further). Further, the NWA cared more about its members than about providing wrestling to those who wanted it. When Baltimore was being starved for wrestling, the NWA worked hard to block the attempts of a local named Ed Contos to change the arrangements, saving the area for the absentee NWA promoter.
The major difference between Vince and the territories was not that he was a wunderkind with an amazing feel for the pulse of pro wrestling. The difference is that the territories were focused on making money from what they had while Vince felt he needed to get the whole nation before he could make any money. In other words, Vince wasn’t making calculated expansions from a place of strength, he just attacked in order to take areas, whether or not he could make money on them quickly. Vince maybe halved the total interest of every territory he went into, but because he started to do so well, and because his show was broadcast everywhere, people thought that wrestling was on a big uptick. The fact is that Vince McMahon, far from being a marketing genius, effectively destroyed the wide appeal for pro wrestling.
The real story of the end of the NWA territorial system needs to have a stronger focus on the financial and business aspects of wrestling. How did Vince McMahon get the money to do what he did? Part of it is definitely that he inherited the rights to run the eastern seaboard, most especially Madison Square Garden, which was perhaps the most lucrative region in the country.
A fact that’s often missed (Hornbaker notes it but puts little emphasis here) is that though Vince Sr sold the company to Jr, the payments were not due for a year, which meant that Vince Jr was able to raise the money by running the company; this is in effect the kind of loan that Jeff Bezos from his parents got to start Amazon. The company wasn’t just up for sale to anyone. But that couldn’t have been all of it, not to buy so many TV slots and contracts in the five years between him acquiring WWF and running WrestleMania I. We know he had to be in some kind of trouble because the money he was paid at the end of the Black Saturday affair — $1 million to turn the TV slot over to Jim Crockett Jr — is said to have paid for WrestleMania, and also because it’s said that if WrestleMania hadn’t succeeded, the WWF would have cratered. The sort of financing that Vince used to take over wrestling, whatever it was, was foreign to NWA promoters but it was also highly risky.
At the end of Death of the Territories, an anonymous promoter is quoted as saying “He goes around telling everybody what a marketing genius he is, but believe me, it’s not marketing: it’s money. His method is just to buy everyone else out.” It’s framed as a bitter promoter trying to rationalize his loss, but when you investigate everything that Vince has ever done, it is the truth.
At no time did Vince “out-promote” his rivals. That means that Vince wasn’t better, but it also means that they weren’t better than Vince. If any other NWA promoter had started off in New York City at the advent of cable, they would have done exactly what Vince did.