SURE – Pro Wrestling is Honest! (Mar, 1950)
SURE – Pro Wrestling is Honest!
It’s as honest as any other legitimate show on Broadway— and what’s more, doesn’t claim to be anything else! But it’s still killing the reputation of amateur wrestling.
By Clive Howard
A GROUP of prominent amateur wrestlers was trying to place wrestling on the sports program of New York City high schools. Arrangements were made for the members to be heard by a special committee of educators and the prospects looked good.
But when the final meeting came about and the topic was broached, the head of the school committee threw up his hands in horror. “Wrestling? Never!” he exclaimed. “We’ve seen that on television!”
Amateur wrestlers, a unique brand of sportsmen who claim that pure wrestling is as scientific as chess and as grueling as football, are very bitter about the professionals who are responsible for wrestling’s poor reputation today. They say that what goes out over the television cameras isn’t wrestling at all but an exhibition of tumbling, acting and a few holds that could be learned out of any ten-cent book on the art of self-defense.
What the amateurs really object to is that what goes on in the pro ring is called. wrestling at all. They claim it has damaged what is most certainly the “purest amateur sport on earth.”
In part, at least, the promoters of professional wrestling deny little of this. One of them is Joe (Toots) Mondt who never calls the bouts contests, matches or even exhibitions. He calls his product a show—and he plans hundreds of shows for 18 important arenas from New York to Florida.
“Anytime we put on a show,” Mondt explains, ‘”we want all the emphasis to be on offensive moves. We want wrestlers to belt each other around good. That’s what people pay to see happen. We don’t want any defensive wrestling in the professional arena.”
This is the root of the whole question of wrestling’s honesty. It has box office integrity, to be sure. But the mere thought of a wrestler refusing to use defensive tactics merely because they are dull, appalls the amateur. “Why,” one amateur wrestler said, “that would be like an outfielder standing aside to let a fly ball fall into the stands just because people like to see home runs.”
But just how phony can a professional wrestling match get? One answer lies in the ruling by the New York State Athletic Commission. Neither the promoter, the television announcer nor anybody else connected with a pro match can advertise it as a contest. The Commission recently issued an ultimatum to promoters to stop implying that what goes on in the professional ring is a contest—it’s an exhibition and it can be called by that name only.
Are the pro matches rigged in advance? Dan Parker, the sports columnist who has battled into oblivion every attempt by professional wrestling to reinstate itself as a competitive sport, once proved an important point in print. Every Monday morning for several months, Parker announced the scheduled winners of matches to take place the rest of the week. He was hardly ever wrong.
Wrestlers who take part in preliminary matches ordinarily get the same amount of money whether they win or lose. This is usually between $75 and $100. Probably, they are also instructed as to how and when they should win or lose. The big-timers don’t appear to be so thoroughly held in reign. Take the case of Primo Camera who lost to Antonino Rocca at the height of his wrestling career. Since that time, Camera’s earnings have dropped and Rocca’s risen—winners demand the big money in exhibitions. The question is, knowing what the wrestling business is like, would Camera have obeyed orders to lose?
Are the matches rehearsed? Well, come with me down a short flight of steps into a basement gym just off Times Square in New York.
The afternoon I wandered into this gym, two wrestlers were working out together on the mat. Both weighed around 240 pounds and both had cauliflower ears. They looked alike except that one had a black beard.
Beard and No-Beard took positions about a foot apart, facing the same direction. No-Beard, standing in front of Beard, reached back and got his arms locked around the back of Beard’s neck. He hefted him onto his own back in about the same way an iceman picks up a huge cake of ice. He bent his knees a little, pushed against Beard’s middle with his own back and yanked down with his arms. Beard sailed out through the air into a half-somersault. He landed on his rear. It sounded like a sack of grain dropped from a third-floor window.
An older man, also dressed in wrestling trunks, got up from a bench along the wall. “No loud enough,” he said in a thick accent.
“Here, I show you.” He took Beard’s place and No-Beard began to yank him up and forward. The man stopped the action at this point to show Beard how to get more height by springing upward as No-Beard yanked. He went sailing through the air and his hands, feet and back all hit flat, at the same instant. This time it sounded like a sack of grain dropped out of an airplane.
Beard and No-Beard rehearsed this version of the Flying Mare until the man with the accent was satisfied it was loud enough. They went through a whole series of holds ending always in loud and spectacular falls.
The match between Beard and No-Beard came off that evening in a small arena in New Jersey. Except for a few standard holds ad libbed as they went along, the whole thing went as rehearsed. Beard, of course, was the Villain. In moments of great anguish he could approximate the piercing squeals of a small pig caught in a concrete mixer.
He lost. For the last several minutes, he allowed himself to be picked up in the Flying Mare and tossed all around the ring. He gave a pretty convincing performance of a man taking a bad beating. The audience loved it.
But this match didn’t go out over television and its promoter was a shoestring operator. The bigtime promoters insist televised matches aren’t rehearsed. After all, they point out, the average professional wrestler goes into the ring as often as five times a week. There wouldn’t be time both to rehearse and wrestle that often.
Back in the days when wrestlers really wrestled, the sport could get horribly dull. Our promoter, Toots Mondt, recalls some matches around 1905 which lasted four or five hours. “All that time,” he explains, “one wrestler would be on the defensive, just countering his opponent’s move and waiting for an opening. The opening would come only after the man on offense got tired out. Then the other fellow would go on the offense. There would be maybe five minutes of action in five hours of wrestling.”
Mondt insists that any wrestler going into one of his shows must have two abilities. “He’s got to be able to wrestle,” Mondt says, “and he has to have showmanship.” Neither, in Mondt’s book, is any good without the other.
Once in a while, Mondt hears of a man who is supposed to be a better wrestler than anybody else in the business. Always in the hope of turning up another Gorgeous George, he scouts every one of them. “They seldom turn out to be any good,” he says. “No color.”
On one lucky ocasion, however, Mondt did turn up a real sensation. In South America while on a tour with Primo Camera he kept hearing about an Argentine wrestler named Rocca. Mondt went to see Rocca wrestle one night and what he saw sent him running for an interpreter. Rocca had developed a tremendous leap and with it a kicking attack that is pure murder. Mondt brought Rocca back to this country and ever since, the Argentinian has been kicking opponents into the audience and dollars into the cash register. In fact, last December an all-time record gate at Madison Square Garden was set by Rocca when he beat Gene (Mr. America) Stanlee—17,854 fans paid out $50,639.28.
Mondt casts his shows carefully. “Say a wrestler is big and slow and maybe not too colorful,” he explains. “We match him with a fast, rough-and-tumble guy with plenty of color. The idea is to get two men into the ring with opposite appeals.”
The acts fall into a set pattern. A clean-looking wrestler almost has to be a hero; he can add crowd appeal by assuming a definite character—the inspiration for which usually comes out of the comic strips. Or, lacking pretty features he can become a villain or figure out something really eccentric.
Look over the list—there’s Gorgeous George with long platinum locks and an English butler who sprays his corner with an atomizer before every match. Then there’s The Bat who dresses like one of the blood-sucking creatures and makes like a vampire throughout his act. He probably got the idea from one of the all-time wrestling showmen—Count Dracula. Dracula always lost—but in the most spectacular way possible. He’d take out a bottle of chloroform and pretend to empty it into his handkerchief and then cover his opponent’s face with it. As the act went, the opponent would fall to the floor, the referee would disqualify Dracula and proclaim the now-conscious opponent the winner.
Because he once caused a near-riot in La Grange, Ga., the town council barred Dracula from appearing there. Did that stop him? It just meant that whenever he played that town he had to change his character. He’d wear a mask and perform as the Masked Marvel!
Some wrestlers have demonstrated fantastic imaginations. Possibly the most vivid belonged to Leo (Lion Man) Savage, a huge bearded man who made the rounds of arenas in the Southwest for several years. Leo’s press agents swore he was discovered in the mountains where, they claimed, he wrestled bears and pulled trees up by the roots. Naturally, his specialty was a bear hug.
Leo did a good job of living up to his advance notice. He’d enter the arena carrying a lighted lantern and leading a coon dog. His cape was a tattered blanket full of moth holes. He claimed he had always wrestled in the mountains by the light of a lantern so he always tried to get the referee to douse the house lights.
Once the match was under way, Leo would try to work his opponent over to his corner, where the coon dog was tied. The dog would sink his teeth into whatever part of the opponent showed up first.
Once, another hillbilly wrestler worked a reed coon into his act and challenged Leo to a match. It wound up with Leo, his opponent, the coon dog and the coon all in one pile in the middle of the ring.
There’s a rumor—no doubt spread by some promoters—that an occupational hazard of professional wrestling is glaucoma, an eye disease nearly always resulting in permanent blindness. It comes, according to the story, from eye gouging.
Well, in the middle ’20’s, there were a few cases of glaucoma. The disease came, not from eye gouging, but from the filth in sweat-and-dirt saturated wrestling mats in arenas and gyms around the country.
Just how much punishment do wrestlers actually take in the ring? Those terrific body falls don’t mean much because the average wrestler is an expert tumbler and knows how to make it look good without hurting himself. Most of the gruesome-looking holds you see are really very mild and gentle if you examine them closely. And, if by some accident, a wrestler is actually hurting his opponent, there’s always the high sign, recognized in every arena. Two quick squeezes on the forgetful wrestler’s arm or leg, a showmanly groan and the hold is relaxed immediately.
If you want to find out what real wrestling is like, drop in at the West Side Y.M.C.A. in New York City. For the last 15 years this “Y” has turned out some of the best amateur wrestling teams in the country. Henry Wittenberg, present Olympic heavyweight champion, is coach of the team. Walter Steinhilber. a top advertising illustrator, is assistant coach. Most of the members are doctors, dentists, lawyers, bank executives—men who wrestled in college and learned to love the sport.
Steinhilber, who weighs 200 pounds, called out a 125-pound amateur to demonstrate to me why some of the standard pro wrestling holds aren’t necessarily good wrestling. They took the starting position of the Flying Mare —the stunt that Beard and No-Beard had so carefully planned before their match.
Steinhilber got his arms around the little fellow’s neck and pulled. Nothing happened. He pulled again and still nothing happened. It soon became evident that nobody could have pulled the slight, 125-pounder into a forward somersault unless he cooperated a little. When the youngster jumped as Steinhilber pulled, the trick worked fine.
Next, Steinhilber demonstrated the stranglehold. Applied by “Strangler” Lewis, this hold could be murderous. But there isn’t anybody in the ring today who can, like Lewis, depress the steel spring supporting a railroad coach in the crook of his arm. Moreover, the hold is applied in a different way.
When Steinhilber tried it on one of the youngsters, he was dumped hard on the mat. There were several ways to break this hold and all were quick and simple.
One by one, using members of the “Y” as demonstrators, Steinhilber ran through the other standard holds used in the pro ring. Against an amateur they resulted in fast falls for the pros Steinhilber showed me that it’s nearly impossible to deliver a forearm or shoulder punch—two favorite pro punches— without leaning forward so far as to go off balance. In amateur wrestling, a man even slightly off balance is headed for trouble.
Gene Tunney, a guy who ought to know, has his own ideas on those murderous-looking blows to the jaw. He says the blow loses most of its force on the shoulder, where the forearm strikes first.
If any further proof is needed of exactly where the pros stand on the question of the sporting aspects of wrestling Henry Wittenberg, the Olympic heavyweight champion, has a story that’ll end all doubts.
He was introduced to a professional heavyweight wrestler whose name would be known to anybody who ever sat for long before a television screen. Naturally, they had a long conversation about wrestling and in parting Wittenberg said: “Stop by the gym sometime and we’ll work out together.”
“Work out together,” said the professional. “What do you mean by that?”
“We’ll wrestle, of course,” said Wittenberg.
“Wrestle?” exclaimed the pro in the tone of a man invited to swim in the Arctic Ocean on New Year’s Eve. “Are you nuts?”