I've made very clear in the past my opinion of the so-called "hardcore wrestling" style and it's detrimental effects on not only the business in general, but the participants as well. I've received pretty much universal support for those opinions, but some folks still think this crap should belong in our sport, and a disturbing number of wrestlers and promoters still feel the need to present and/or participate in this type of stunt show for the small, albeit vocal number of people who will actually pay to see it. Therefore, in this edition of the commentary, I thought it interesting to examine the hardcore fad, from it's origin, to development, to it's effect on wrestling wherever it has gotten a foothold.
There has always been a "wild and woolly" aspect to pro wrestling, and I have no problem with that. A great part of wrestling's history has been the "pier 6 brawl" with chairs or foreign objects. In Chicago in the 60's and 70's, Bruiser and Crusher drew huge crowds to see them bloody the hated heels and whack them with chairs. Texas wrestling had a tradition for bloody, all out brawls in and out of the ring. Nowhere was this style more prominent than in Tennessee wrestling, which was often the subject of scorn and ridicule among the more conservative promoters and territories, because they felt it was "garbage" wrestling that took no athletic talent and would either expose the business or burn out the territory. However, Southern fans loved a brawl, as long as they BELIEVED it was a brawl (an important point for later), and one of the reasons these types of matches got over so well was the Fabulous Jackie Fargo.
Jackie Fargo came to Tennessee in the late 50's as part of the Fabulous Fargos with brother Don. Often World Tag Team Champions, they had a big run in New York, selling out Madison Square Garden against Rocca and Perez, working the Northeast, the Midwest, Chicago and other hotspots, but in Tennessee, the name Fargo became legendary. First as heels, then later babyfaces when they got popular simply because they were on top so long, the Fargos ruled promoter Nick Gulas' territory, which stretched across Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, Arkansas, parts of Missouri and even into Western North Carolina in those days. When Don moved on, Jackie's brother Sonny ("Roughouse") joined the team, but eventually Jackie Fargo emerged as the Man, the single top draw in the promotion. He stayed in that spot for over 15 years, until passing the torch to Jerry Lawler in the mid-70's and settling into his spot as the all time wrestling legend in the area, a position he was still able to pop huge houses in for another 10 years or so. In 1982, he lent his credibility to Stan Lane and Steve Keirn, the Fabulous Ones. A Fargo Brothers update for the 80's, the Fabs, primarily due to Fargo's influence with the fans, were over instantly, and went on to become one of the biggest tag team draws and influences of all time, spawning the Rock & Roll Express and other MTV-style teams that flooded wrestling in the decade.
Wild, bloody, chair and table-swinging brawls were Jackie's forte, and any type of No DQ, anything-goes matches where furniture and ring bells ended up in the ring were often called "Fargo matches" by those in the business in the area. Fargo was so important to the promotion that he claimed to have earned over $100,000 in 1971 working for Nick Gulas, who had a reputation as the worst payoff man in wrestling. Fargo often did "hardways", i.e., taking full-force punches and being busted open for real, to protect the credibility of wrestling. He always told the fans he wasn't a great scientific wrestler, but he would fight anyone, and in his matches he sold for his opponents in such a realistic manner, then came back to win, that he was seen as the toughest man in wrestling. Watching films of his early 70's main events is as close as anything you will ever see to a real life "Rocky" movie.
The important thing to remember as we go forward is that in all cases, especially in Tennessee where the style was popular and the main stars proficient in it, is that these matches were ALWAYS presented as a match between two rivals that got out of control, tempers flared, a fight erupted, and the furniture or objects used were utilized because they happened to be within reach when "those two sons of bitches went crazy". If it was a regular match, the ref immediately Disqualified someone. In a No DQ match, it was portrayed as the ref only having the power to count a pin, not stop anyone from doing anything they wanted with anyTHING they wanted. Whether a Street Fight, Texas Death Match or whatever, these rules illustrated the difference between what you were about to see and a normal wrestling match.
The real birth, however, of what has come to be known as "Hardcore" wrestling, came June 17, 1979 in, of all places, Tupelo, Mississippi. Promoter Jerry Jarrett, who had started his own promotion two years earlier and taken over Gulas' area, had a problem. Over the previous four months or so, his booker had been Robert Fuller. Fuller had installed his own crew of talent over that time, and only a few Memphis mainstays were currently working the area. The problem was, for whatever reason, the success Fuller and his crew had in Knoxville for brother Ron's Southeastern Wrestling had not translated to the Memphis end. On June 11, the crowd at the weekly Monday night matches in Memphis had dropped below 4,000 fans, an alarming level at the time, and previous weeks' houses showed it wasn't a fluke. Jarrett replaced Fuller (and I would love to someday hear the first-person account from Jerry of that conversation), and took the book back himself. Now he was in another quandary--almost all the top names featured on TV and in angles over the previous several months were gone--Fuller, the Mongolian Stomper, Gorgeous George Jr., Mr. Fuji & Prof. Tanaka, Ronnie Garvin, Jimmy Golden, Dick Slater, Boris Malenko, Tony Charles, all were gone from the territory instantly after the June 11 Memphis card. Jarrett, in my opinion a booking genius, realized he had to take the talent left available to him on short notice and do something that would get such attention, cause such talk, and most importantly, sell enough tickets, that the territory could weather this storm until he had time to build new programs and import new stars.
There are plenty of clichés to apply to this situation. Necessity is the mother of invention. Adversity introduces a man to himself. I prefer two that I have coined--Every brilliant idea can potentially cause the downfall of the business it revolutionizes, or, in the wrong hands, even inspiration is deadly.
In Tupelo, Jarrett booked his two top names, Jerry Lawler and Bill Dundee, to defend the Southern Tag Team Title against two prelim wrestlers who had been teaming the previous two weeks--Wayne Farris (later Honky Tonk Man) and Larry Latham (later Moondog Spot). In a wild match where everyone bled and the crowd of 300 or so was on their feet, Farris and Latham scored an upset by screwing Lawler and Dundee and winning the belts. Lawler and Dundee, pissed off, attacked the heels after the match and they spilled out of the ring and fought down the aisle. Lance Russell, in the "crow's nest" of the arena with a TV camera allegedly shooting for the "B" show that featured arena matches from around the area, signed off and the camera faded to black. The audio, however, was still up. Within 10 seconds you heard Lance yell to the cameraman Randy West, "Hey Randy, there's a hell of a fight going on down here!" Video coming back up, you saw the camera moved down the back stairs, where Lance, carrying a light pole, shone the spotlight on all 4 men in the concession stand of the Tupelo Sports Arena, a dump of a place with plywood walls, and they were literally destroying the place. Stiff punches and kicks, chairs, tables, cookie sheets, brooms, mops, everything you would expect to find in a concession stand was used along with some of the most realistic brawling you will ever see, as the two teams beat the bejesus out of each other with Lance calling the action. Jarrett, trying to break up the brawl, was beaten down and had his street clothes ripped off. Finally, the combatants were hustled out by security and wrestlers, and the stand was completely destroyed and what was left was covered in blood and mustard, courtesy of a 10 gallon mustard jug Lawler had chucked at Latham that broke against the wall in a million pieces.
The next morning on Memphis TV, the entire tape was shown unedited, and became the talk of the town's wrestling fans. In an area noted for wild matches, no one had ever seen anything like this. The following week, it had become such a sensation it was shown again in it's entirety, as well as airing on the one week tape delay in the other markets, Louisville, Nashville, Evansville and Lexington. Kenny Bolin and I went everywhere repeating Lance's call of the action--"Mustard everywhere!"--and this incident actually convinced me to buy one of those newfangled inventions called a VCR.
Adding Sgt. Danny Davis as the manager of Latham & Farris, the Blonde Bombers, Jarrett booked the return matches on top in every town in the territory, filling out the cards with local talent and running Tommy & Eddie Gilbert vs. Buddy & Ken Wayne as the only other real "program" on the cards. In Memphis, he brought Fargo back to offset Davis. The crowds in all the cities started to rise. By July 16, the Memphis crowd was near 7,000, and two weeks later, a triple main event of Bill Dundee vs. Nick Bockwinkle for the AWA Title, Jackie & Roughouse Fargo vs. the Bombers in a cage, and Ron Bass vs. newcomer Terry "The Hulk" Boulder for the Southern Title drew 8,000. A crisis had been averted.
The "Tupelo Concession Stand Brawl", as it came to be known, made such an impression on wrestling fans throughout the area it is still remembered today. But, to show that even a genius sometimes goes to the well too often, it happened again less than a year later. With business down with Jerry Lawler out with a broken leg, the team of Ricky & Robert Gibson went to the "stand" in Tupelo with the Bombers, but it had little effect on business because, well, the fans had seen it before and done better, and few remember this one as it was before the VCR boom. But the THIRD time, which proved to be no charm, is the pivotal point in our story.
In September 1981, the team of Eddie Gilbert and Ricky Morton faced Tojo Yamamoto's team of Masa Fuchi and Atsushi Onita in Tupelo. Onita and Fuchi were just beginning their careers and had been sent by Giant Baba's All Japan promotion to the U.S. to get experience, so he could bring them back as stars. The Concession Stand Brawl was reprised one more time, and this one, in performance at least, was the topper to them all. Gilbert and Morton were hungry to climb the cards and the Japanese team were determined to hang with them in a dangerous, bloody brawl that even saw the Tupelo promoter's wife, having not been smartened up, try to get these maniacs out of her food stand. Although wilder than both previous brawls, this one had no effect on business whatsoever and it was never done again. In Tupelo.
The lesson had been learned in Memphis that the reason the first one drew was because it contained top names (Lawler & Dundee) in a wild fight that people could believe really got out of control because they had never seen anything like it. Repeats featured talent being used lower on the cards, and even in an era where many still believed wrestling, it was just too coincidental that things always got out of hand in the one arena in the territory that was such a dump you could destroy part of it and not spend a fortune in repairs. But another lesson had been learned that would affect wrestling halfway around the world.
By the mid-80's, Onita had been brought back to Japan to be Baba's top junior heavyweight star. Unfortunately, the high-risk style destroyed his knees, and he was pretty much retired from wrestling by the end of the decade. However, he still had a name, a boatload of charisma, an ability to talk to the fans in an emotional way, and a fire to be a superstar. He remembered this nutty wrestling he had seen in Tennessee, and had an inspiration (which remember, can be dangerous.)
Pro wrestling had been one of the biggest sports in Japan since the days of Rikidozan in the late 50's. It was treated as a legitimate sport in the national newspapers and magazines, was broadcast on network TV with state-of-the-art production values, drew huge ratings and big houses. There were two games in town--Baba's All Japan Wrestling and Antonio Inoki's New Japan Wrestling. While Japanese wrestling fans were no strangers to blood, especially after the legendary Dory & Terry Funk vs. Abdullah the Butcher and the Sheik rivalry in the 70's, even bloody bouts with gimmick performers were treated as sport, and the main draws in Japan in the late 80's were stiff, realistic and exciting athletic contests. The top Americans, like Bruiser Brody, Stan Hansen, the Road Warriors, and whomever held the NWA Title, were earning upwards of $10,000 per week on tour there. Onita knew he couldn't compete at Japanese level wrestling with his bad knees, but with a NEW style, never seen there, he could stand out. He assembled a crew of Japanese talent who couldn't make it on the main promotions' rosters, imported Americans that hadn't been able to gain a spot with the "big two", and FMW, Frontier Martial Arts Wrestling, was born.
This was wrestling on acid to the Japanese. Blood, not just from a busted head but arms, chests, everywhere. Barbed wire matches, no rope death matches, chaos and mayhem on a scale the Japanese had never seen. Through all the carnage, Onita would emerge triumphant, and do emotional promos in his native language, often crying real tears, about how he was enduring all the pain for his fans. He became a hero and, for a brief time, FMW drew money in a country where this type of thing had never been seen. The problem was, he had no frame of reference as to why and how this had taken place in Tennessee. Not speaking English, not having grown up watching it, being a rookie in the sport, he had no idea of the positives and negatives, how this type of wrestling fit in or what the consequences were of doing it too often. Within a few years, not only had other "outlaw" promotions sprung up in Japan when Onita would make "stars" that would become disgruntled and leave to form their own companies, diluting the product, but the need to "top" the extreme level of violence on every card led to more and more dangerous (and preposterous) gimmick matches, the culmination of which may have been the Exploding Ring match. In this one, a clock counted down to 0 as the wrestlers battled, and when it hit 0, whether anyone was in it or not, the ring would blow up! The matches and work mostly sucked, but the spectacle attracted attention. The lesson was not learned that in a "real" fight, and used sparingly, this style could succeed, but in a "stunt show" environment where the participants were in obvious cooperation with each other, it became a distasteful freak show.
While the "big two" tried to ignore all this, and more and more outlaw promotions sprung up in Japan trying to copy Onita's success, he became a living mass of scars and even more crippled than he was before. While FMW did draw some big crowds, including over 30,000 to a baseball stadium for the FIRST exploding ring match, and Onita succeeded in signing Japanese legend Terry Funk and upcoming U.S. star Cactus Jack to appear for him, barely five years after starting up, FMW folded, and Onita went on to become an elected politician, the Japanese version of a United States Senator.
The toothpaste was out of the tube, however, in Japan. Countless different promotions sprang up and folded up in the 90's. All Japan and New Japan's business was affected, as, even though no one else ever got real television, fans were fragmented, and they began seeing "too much" to either settle for traditional angles, finishes and matchups, or to take wrestling as seriously as they had for the previous 40 years as a "real sport." Several other things, notably changes in network TV times and the 1999 death of Baba, hurt wrestling in Japan, but it was the late 90's rise of REAL wrestling groups doing MMA and shootfighting matches that finished exposing pro wrestling as a work and took most of it's fans away, that ended pro wrestling's days as a major attraction in Japan. Many groups hang on, a few draw moderate crowds, most feature "sports entertainment" style product, and none have major TV today, but as of 2009 MMA and shoots have replaced traditional pro wrestling in what just over 20 years ago was the most lucrative market for the sport in the world on a per capita basis.
In the United States, pro wrestling in the early 90's was in a state of transition. The territories had all gone under thanks to Vince McMahon's WWF expansion, and ironically, only Jarrett's Memphis promotion survived. Wrestling entered a sort of "deregulation" that would make Wall Street shudder, where the experienced promoters who controlled all wrestling in their territories and would protect the credibility of the business to their fans were gone. Anyone with enough money to book a building and hire some wrestlers could be a promoter. Anyone with enough money to buy boots and tights (and these days, even those are not needed) could be a wrestler. Many tried to open promotions to service the now-disenfranchised wrestling fans who were suddenly left with no regular shows in their local markets. A small independent promotion based in Philadelphia, Eastern Championship Wrestling, suddenly became Extreme Championship Wrestling in 1994.
ECW, led by my old friend Paul Heyman, featured a lot of great wrestling and wrestlers, but it became known primarily for it's "Extreme" rules. Philly had been one of the first cities in the country with a large segment of "smart" fans, who read the newsletters, cheered the charismatic heels, and knew there was a performance aspect to the business the casual fans didn't see. This was magnified by the mid-90's emergence of a thing called the Internet. ECW began showing what could generously be termed as a lack of restraint in presenting wilder matches and edgier angles, becoming something of a "heavy-metal" wrestling promotion, with few if any rules, profanity, gimmick-laden matches and a blurring of the lines of face and heel, work and shoot. Because the fans were smart, the wrestlers, most from a new generation, began laying in the weapons shots for real to "convince" the fans. Veterans in the business, including myself, laughed at them when we would see photos of the welts, scars, and cuts, but we would soon find out it was no laughing matter.
ECW began importing many of the Japanese FMW-style gimmicks as a large percentage of it's fans were tape traders who had seen or heard of those matches. Heavy blood, furniture, barbed wire, fire, even a crucifixion became part of it's presentation. The vocal minority at the matches and on the Internet made it a cult attraction. The pinnacle of this is an ECW match I saw on TV where two guys "battled" to the top rope, held onto each other while standing there shakily, then nodded at each other in an obvious display of cooperation, and leaped for no reason off the top rope to crash through a table set up in the ring, while the sellout crowd of 900 roared it's approval. I was embarrassed to watch it. ECW never drew crowds as large as my major Smoky Mountain Wrestling shows in Knoxville, or booker Randy Hales' legends shows in Memphis, much less approached WWF-level attendance, but it did catch the eye of the struggling WCW, who, run by corporate idiots and desperate to compete with WWF, started incorporating more "hardcore lite" rules in their matches. This caused Vince McMahon to take notice, and a few of the complete marks HE had hired, with no knowledge of what they were getting into, liked the shit as well, and convinced him for a brief time to go in that direction, with tables, ladders, chairs and the like. To Vince's credit, when the injuries got out of control and the law of diminishing returns kicked in, he showed wisdom no one else has been able to muster and cut the crap out.
By the late 90's this shit was completely out of control. A porn producer in LA who got pissed off at Heyman got into the wrestling business with an "XPW", and his tapes made ECW look like Sam Muchnick's St. Louis, with strippers, porn girls and outlaw wrestlers, and some of the most ludicrous stipulations and shitty work ever seen, but thankfully the government indicted him for his porn and his promotion closed up. The injury rate was off the charts in ECW, as well as the talent just working banged up and in pain most of the time, which led to severe drug issues in their locker room. No one there attempted to reign in the insanity for the good of the talent, the business, or the promotion's long-term viability, and by 2001 ECW folded up, $8 million in debt, as much a victim of their inability to continue "topping" what they presented to their fans as by the loss of their stars to WWF or WCW. The damage they did is apparent even today, however, as every time someone crashes through a flaming table or perpetrates some preposterous stunt, a segment of fans in the Northeast will chant "ECW, ECW". Even WWE's revival of the initials to serve as a "C" show developmental television can't quash this.
My friend Mick Foley, who I respect as one of the top stars in the business of the last two decades, must bear some responsibility as well. Not possessed of the traditional "look" of a star, he had to take the big bumps and do the outlandish things he did to attract attention and get over. But the people who emulate just that aspect of his performance ignore that he had incredible promo skills, tremendous psychology, above-average intelligence and off-the-charts charisma that kept him over long after the "stunt" had subsided. Copycats think they, too, can get over just like Mick by diving off the roof. And some idiot promoter will let them.
But the worst was yet to come. In the past 10 years, literally hundreds of smalltime "promotions" have come into being, and except in states with athletic commission regulation, have been allowed to run rampant. The "wrestlers" they use have often never even been trained, and much as with Onita's gathering of lesser talent in Japan, people who have always wanted to be "pro wrestlers" but simply can't hang with the big boys due to a lack of talent, athletic ability, size or whatever, but CAN hit each other over the head with blunt instruments, have overrun our sport. Guys who grew up as ECW fans get in the business and think this is the way it's supposed to be, or that it's "cool" that they show everyone how "hardcore" they are. Ex ECW "star" Ian Rotten's IWA Mid-South promotion almost killed pro wrestling in Kentucky, with broken glass, thumb tacks, mouse traps, and the like until the state revoked his license and kicked him out. The publicity his "shows" got resulted in strict new regulations on wrestling, the sport being banned from many schools in Kentucky and all National Guard Armories in Indiana, and the bad taste left in the general public's mouth took years for Ohio Valley Wrestling to erase. He was the subject of a criminal investigation in 2008 when, at a show in a parking lot somewhere in Indiana, his "wrestlers" legitimately beat the shit out of some mark he allowed to wrestle a WOMAN because the guy got stiff with her!
A promotion called Combat Zone Wrestling in the Philly area holds matches where they hit each other with fluorescent light tubes and weed whackers, and pour salt and lemon juice in the wounds! The morbid, pathological need these idiots have to be recognized as SOMEONE in pro wrestling, even if it's only for sane people to laugh at them, is what causes so many fans who are exposed to this shit to scoff at, or just avoid, ALL pro wrestling. These people mutilate their bodies for no compensation in parking lots and rec centers to hear the cheers of 100 or so people who this type of thing appeals to, and become a public relations nightmare to anyone trying to present a profitable, quality product. Additionally, just who is it that ENJOYS this sideshow garbage? The same type of people who go to rock concerts to punch and bash each other in the face and beat each other up in the "mosh pit"--lower class, mentally challenged college-age (but not attending) guys who piss and moan about their depression and lot in life because they have neither the drive and determination nor mental acumen to change it. Any normal fans who see this type of show or attend one with these type of fans NEVER want to go to wrestling again. As bad as I hate sports entertainment, even THAT is certainly preferable to "hardcore" wrestling.
So what has been the fallout of "hardcore" wrestling today? For the wrestlers, shorter careers, higher injury rates and painkiller addictions. The fans have been numbed to seeing people get hit with objects, so you have to hit someone THREE times as hard to get a THIRD of the response. For bookers, many of the tools they had to shoot angles or draw money have been taken away now that everyone has seen everything. For the fans, it's meant a lack of credibility to anything they see, thus a lack of interest or emotional investment. For the general public, the opinion of wrestling and wrestlers is at an all time low with the steroid issues, the Benoit scandal, and the release of the movie "The Wrestler", where the aforementioned Combat Zone Wrestling is highlighted in the scene where a staple gun is used (In CZW, they actually DO that for REAL.) And anyone who sees it thinks "What stupid goofs those wrestlers must be", and those of us who used to proudly proclaim to anyone in sight we were in the wrestling business now walk around in public with our heads down so as not to be recognized, for fear people will think WE used to partake in that type of activity. All because people who didn't have the talent to BE pro wrestlers were allowed to be, because of the deregulation of having no strong territories and promoters to protect the business from itself. Twenty years ago, we PRETENDED to hurt each other, and the fans believed it. Today, we REALLY DO hurt each other, and the fans think it's fake. Who are the marks now??
Will pro wrestling as it used to be ever return? Yes it will, only it will be called UFC, and it will happen whenever the two top stars get together on their own and agree to work a two out of three series of "business matches" to make money, just as Frank Gotch and George Hackenschmidt, the two top wrestlers in the world, did in 1908 and started this whole thing.
Of course, that series ended in a doublecross.
I'm Jim Cornette, and that's my opinion.