The Mental Ward: Crossing Enemy Lines…..

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I first discovered pro wrestling in the mid-1980s. “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes doing battle with “Beautiful” Bobby Eaton inside a steel cage is one of my earliest wrestling memories. However, when I saw “Nature Boy” Ric Flair and Sting go 60 minutes at the first Clash of the Champions, I was hooked for life. THAT was storytelling. THAT was drama. THAT was pro wrestling. In my youth Hulkamania ran wild. In my high school and college years, The Attitude Era redefined the industry. In my adult years, things just haven’t been the same. A spark is missing. The sport I loved has morphed into something almost unrecognizable at times. Yet, I still watch. I cling to hope that pro wrestling will one day again return to past glory. Webster defines insanity as doing the same thing over and over again but expecting a different result. Ladies and gentlemen, come on in. We’re all friends here. Welcome back to, “The Mental Ward.”

Once upon a time, in a land that is now seemingly light years behind us, before the internet was even an idea, before the term “Monday Night War” was coined, before Paul Heyman turned a small gritty Philadelphia based promotion into the national phenomenon that was ECW, and well before the days of monthly pay per view events and video on demand services, professional wrestling fans had territories. It may be hard to believe now but there was a time when the WWF was just one of the many territories operating throughout North America. Fritz Von Erich owned Dallas with his World Class Championship Wrestling (WCCW), Verne Gagne dominated the Midwest with his Minneapolis based American Wrestling Association (AWA), Stu Hart ran Stampede Wrestling in Calgary Alberta Canada, and a couple of guys named Jerry took southern rasslin’ and created something magical in Memphis that was the hottest thing since Elvis swiveled his hips. There were literally dozens more. If you lived in these areas, you got to see your local promotions on television every week. Better yet, you even got to go see them live weekly as they traveled a familiar loop making the towns and doing the rounds.

By far, the biggest player in territorial wresting was the NWA, the National Wrestling Alliance. They had affiliates scattered all throughout the country. The NWA would lend its World Heavyweight Champion to these local promotions to mix it up with the hometown hero a couple times a year. It was great for local promoters. They could build to a couple huge events per year while staying the course and keeping everything in perspective for their weekly business. The NWA Board of Directors, composed of several of the top promoters in the industry, would meet periodically and decide who the NWA World Heavyweight Champion was going to be. They did what was best for business long before Triple H and The Authority used that phrase on WWE television. A young up and comer by the name of “Nature Boy” Ric Flair was their golden boy. Flair benefitted perhaps more than any wrestler in history as a result of the territory system. To this day, I have no clue how the NWA as we once knew it wasn’t the last man standing when the smoke cleared and all of the other territories closed. They had the money and they had the greatest champion. Vince McMahon (whom I speak of often) had the foresight to take his WWF promotion nationwide which was a no-no in those days. You don’t work in another promoter’s back yard. His promotion was bigger and better than anyone else’s, and those other promotions knew it. So, they either sold to him, for what I can only imagine was a less than modest fee, or they just folded up shop and went home. At least if they sold outright to Vince they didn’t have to sit idly by and watch the business they built die a slow and painful death. He was going to sign away their top stars anyway. That’s why you can view content from most of these territories on The WWE Network. Vince had the vision and the foresight to see the value in the various territorial brands and the stars they had worked decades to build. Then as we all know Jim Crockett Promotions, the Charlotte based and most powerful NWA affiliate, went into bankruptcy and was forced to sell to Ted Turner, thus becoming WCW, and the war was on from that point.

North American territory wrestling was important for a myriad of reasons, primarily because it was a launching pad for so many different performers that worked in the business. It gave men and women the opportunity to travel the continent and work against a variety of established veterans, experience various wrestling styles, and truly understand ring psychology by working in different areas where the fans reacted differently; in short, it was the perfect system for the unique industry that is professional wrestling. It was also good because it gave guys (and gals) leverage when it came to negotiations. When one promoter refused to pay up, a talent could leave for greener pastures. Anyone who doesn’t believe that the top draws in every territory made money in those days is seriously misinformed. Traveling the territories not only gave wrestlers a better education and made them more well rounded it also kept them from wearing out their welcome and growing stale. They had options. The overall health of professional wrestling was much better during that era. Amazing…who would have ever thought that competition was good for business? Anyway, when I became of pro wrestling, territories were on the verge of extinction. I remember watching the Von Erich’s and The Fabulous Freebirds in WCCW, and I watched the aforementioned Ric Flair and his 4 Horseman in Jim Crockett’s NWA. Sadly, the only reason I knew who Jerry “The King” Lawler was is because he was sent to WCCW for a fight and Memphis was only a few hours up the road from me! This point in history, which was the late 1980’s, there just wasn’t many of these entities still in operation. Work was drying up, and if you wanted to make any real money, you had to latch on with either one of the two national juggernauts. The 1980’s did their best to kill capitalism in pro wrestling.

Just to name a few, here is a list of big time wrestlers that we all know and love who made their names in the territories and were snatched up by McMahon and Turner and placed on their respective television shows:

“Nature Boy” Ric Flair (Mid-Atlantic), “Rowdy” Roddy Piper (Portland), “Macho Man” Randy Savage (Memphis), “Mr. Perfect” Curt Hennig (AWA), “Ravishing” Rick Rude (WCCW), Hulk Hogan (AWA), The Junk Yard Dog (Mid-South), The British Bulldogs (Stampede), Kamala (Memphis/WCCW/Mid-South), Shawn Michaels (AWA), “Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase (Mid-South), “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes (Florida/Mid-Atlantic), The Ultimate Warrior (WCCW), Sergeant Slaughter (AWA), Koko B. Ware (Memphis), Kevin Sullivan (Florida), The Road Warriors (AWA), Greg “The Hammer” Valentine (Mid-Atlantic), Bret “The Hitman” Hart (Stampede), Jake “The Snake” Roberts (Mid-South), “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff (Florida), “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan (Mid-South), Jesse “The Body” Ventura (AWA), Sid Vicious (Memphis), Bam Bam Bigelow (WCCW), Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat (Mid-Atlantic), The Iron Sheik (AWA), The One Man Gang (Mid-South), Lex Luger (Florida), Jeff Jarrett (Memphis), The Sheepherders (Mid-South), and so so so many more……

I’m out of breath.

Pro wrestling in the 1980s was survival of the fittest in every sense of the term. The rich got richer. The WWF literally picked the bones clean. I’d say a lot of those promoters made out pretty good when they sold. Some clung on to the glory days. Others like Fritz Von Erich (who had lost more than just his livelihood) merged with Jerry Jarrett to form the USWA. Prior to that, what Fritz DID see was the golden opportunity that cable and satellite television provided. In theory, there’s no reason why I should have been able to watch WCCW from the Dallas Sportatorium through a local Nashville TV affiliate. Because of TV deals, I was able to. At that point, it was truly anyone’s ballgame. The promoters that got it jumped on the TV bandwagon as fast as they could. Joe Blanchard’s Southwest Championship Wrestling out of San Antonio had a Sunday morning time slot on the USA Network. Yes, THAT USA Network. However, after airing a violent bloody match involving Tully Blanchard, USA said that the bloody content was too much for Sunday morning television. The time slot was then given to the WWF, and the rest is history.

Could the territories have survived? Nature tells us that all of them would not have, but could a few maybe hung around through the new millennium? In the end, there really is only room for one or two at the top of the mountain. I have no problem with what Vince McMahon did. Hold the phone; I just backed something that a McMahon did? Anyway, as I was saying, I can’t argue with the final result. We had dream matches, greater champions, and it was on free television every week. The fans benefitted….for a while. At what price though? Now we are seeing the industry suffer the effects from the elimination of the territory system. Did the end justify the means? I’ve often wondered what would have come of WCCW had tragedy not struck the Von Erich family? What if Andy Kaufman had worked with Jerry Lawler about ten years later when people really “got” what wrestling truly was? Had he not of passed away incredibly too soon, what if that angle was done in the WWF? Would it have meant more? Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the blunders that Jim & David Crockett committed when they ran Mid-Atlantic Wrestling. These guys had it all. They were selling out arenas everywhere. They were everything that was good about pro wrestling. The stuff that they did with Dusty Rhodes and the 4 Horsemen is still to this day some of the greatest drama you will ever see on television. They traveled into uncharted waters when they left the southeast region that made them what they were, and ventured west. Ric Flair himself has been quoted as saying, “Had they just stayed east of the Mississippi River, they’d still be in business today.” Not to mention the TWO leer jets that they flew talent out in. They could’ve traveled coach, but nah. Sometimes businesses expand before it’s time. That was clearly the case here. Even though in some markets they were ahead of Vince McMahon and his expanding global empire, it still wasn’t enough.

What started in the 1980’s was a domino effect. The territories were forced out of business. By the early 90’s, there were only two top dogs left. A little over a decade later, well, you’ve seen this movie. My opinion on what has happened to pro wrestling in the last 25-30 years is just that, an opinion. What cannot be argued with is that the aura of what once was professional wrestling is dead. Kayfabe has long since died. It was unceremoniously taken out back behind the barn and given a bullet to the brain many years ago. There are no blurred lines anymore. Everything is black and white, and it’s a shame. It’s a shame for people that still love pro wrestling. Just a couple of weeks back, Bobby Fulton was a guest on The PWA Show, and he eluded to the fact that Vince McMahon wants to drop wrestling from the WWE name altogether. After all its entertainment right? What happened? The hope for true wrestling the way it was intended is slowly fading. Maybe we get that old school fix with Global Force Wrestling perhaps? Still I long for the days of dozens of intelligent, experienced, promoters running territories across the land. The days when names like: Don Owen, Roy Shire, Bob Geigel, Paul Boesch, Bill Watts, Nick Gulas, Sam Muschnick, Jim Barnett, and Eddie Graham produced weekly cards that thrilled fans for generations. It all seems like a lifetime ago.

Recently, Bleacher Report ranked their top 25 territories of all time. The top 5 were the ones you would imagine, but I was shocked that they had the Mid-Atlantic NWA territory as their number one promotion ahead of the WWF. The folks at Bleacher Report LOVE anything Vince McMahon does, so it was a bit shocking that they would rank them as they did. Make no mistake, Mid Atlantic was the greater promotion, and if a few changes had been made, we wouldn’t be able to recognize pro wresting today. When I close my eyes and I think back to the first ten years of my life, I think of three powerful memories: (1) cherished times spent with my family (2) the Berlin Wall come down (3) pro wrestling. It was something that started at an early age when I saw Sting and Flair go 60 minutes at that first Clash and I never forgot the way it made me feel. What I grew up watching, which was several different promotions, kids these days will never know.

That truly hurts my heart.

As always, you can reach me on Twitter @jonward51.

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