These playlists will run the full gamut of pro wrestling and include whatever footage I have in chronological order, from all over the world. Each volume is approximately 4 hours.
You will occasionally see hyperlinks throughout the listings. These will link to reviews of the match in question that I think are interesting, or more often to the ProWrestlingOnly.com Match Discussion Archive. Thousands of matches have individual threads available where people can chime in with their thoughts. You can sign up for the board if you’re interested. Likewise, if you know of good resources related to certain matches, such as message board or blog posts, articles or podcasts, please let me know and I’ll update everyone with the additional information.
This footage is what I’d informally call “prehistoric” wrestling, or wrestling footage that exists mostly prior to the formation of the modern National Wrestling Alliance in 1948 and the television boom of the 1950s. Most of the matches are small clips. When possible, I have tried to source everything from a DVD, although I have picked up some things online when I cannot locate a DVD version. Just as is the case for everything in my collection, if I do find a superior source, I will always upgrade my version. In most cases, the clips are from newsreels, most commonly the Associated Press and British Pathe. In other cases, the matches were presented as short films and even produced by major players like Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
I have seen many comments on the wrestling style. It’s possible that it could alienate new fans, but I would be careful not to toss it all overboard. There are some matches like Earl Stetcher vs Joe Caddock from January 30, 1920, that serve as a fascinating piece of trivia, but seem to test even those who love mat wrestling. About 25 minutes of footage survived from a 2 ½ hour shoot that wasn’t all that thrilling. At the same time, there are wrestlers like Man Mountain Dean, a regular monster heel presence in the mid-1930s, who most have found to be really enjoyable.
This is a good time to point out that because I care so much about chronology and detail, if we can’t pinpoint a year or a participant, I’m not likely to list it here. That’s not to say that there isn’t wrestling in that category worth watching; 1901’s “Fat and Lean Wrestling Match” is a creative riot and shows that maybe matches like Final Deletion aren’t that unusual or new school anyway. So if your question is, is the list below a complete list of all wrestling footage in the specified time period, the answer would be no. If your question is, is the list below a complete list of all matches in the specified time period where you can identify a year and/or participant, it’s possible the answer is yes.
What I find most interesting about both this and other early volumes that are coming soon is how significant so many of the matches are that were filmed, and also how insignificant others are as a contrast. To illustrate that point, the volume starts with Paul Pons vs Magnus Bech-Olsen, which is to my knowledge the oldest available clip of a live wrestling match. Pons, who was inducted into the WON HOF in 2019, was the greatest French star of his era and took on Bech-Olsen, considered the biggest Danish star of his era. This match took place at the Charlottenlund racecourse in Copenhagen and drew between 10,000-12,000 fans. The 1920 match between Joe Stetcher and Earl Caddock has them facing each other at Madison Square Garden in front of a crowd that produced the record gate for MSG until Bruno Sammartino rose to prominence over 40 years later. There are multiple 1930s MSG and Boston cards that drew 10,000+ where the matches are shown in clipped form here. You might draw a conclusion that the more important a match was, the more likely it was to both be filmed and survive over time, but it’s not necessarily true.
We also get into the avant garde, like the French exhibition matches involving Raoul Le Boucher in 1906, which take place against a life-sized backdrop of an outdoor painting and have no noticeable spectators, or the Vienna match in 1911, which seems to take place on a picnic blanket, possibly in a park. In fact, the wrestling doesn’t even look aesthetically recognizable until the 1913 Prague match, which is the first match to take place in an elevated ring -- albeit one with no ring ropes -- with more fans and an overall more developed-looking presentation. It’s hard to get a feel for the working style since this is both clipped and sped up, just like most early footage, but starting from a standing position before going to the mat and back up again starts to feel like the formations of a conventional wrestling match. We don’t hear wrestling commentary until Gus Sonnenberg’s 1928 match against Ed Strangler Lewis in Boston. I think the 1914 Hamburg match might even be a military training activity, as German soldiers surround the two wrestlers while they roll around on the mat.
Another interesting inclusion is a wrestling match featuring legendary promoter Toots Mondt. Toots is presented with the short-lived NBA (National Boxing Association -- yeah, it made no sense) championship by promoter Ray Fabiani before the match starts. They appear to be on a family farm in front of a well-to-do small crowd. While Mondt made his name as a promoter, he looks like a fantastic wrestler as well, as he and Shikat engage in some spirited grappling that doesn’t even feel all that dated. There are some GREAT camera angles that focus on the footwork of both men. This thread at the Wrestling Classics forum has more information about the match.
There are a couple of notable omissions from my list below that I want to address:
This isn’t really a “match” but rather 40 seconds of grappling captured on a Bioskop projector by director Max Skladanowsky, for the 1895 film Ringkampfer. Sandow was an iconic professional wrestler, nude model, and bodybuilder during the late 19th and early 20th century, an era during which the three industries had significant overlap as part of what at the time was called "physical culture". Sandow started off performing impressive feats of strength -- he held a world record for pressing 224 lbs with one hand that was later broken by George Hackenschmidt -- but promoters quickly realized that fans, particularly women, were more interested in watching him pose than in seeing him perform a strongman act. His drawing power peaked in 1901 when thousands of fans were turned away from a sold out bodybuilding event that he headlined at London's Royal Albert Hall. Wilhelm Baumann, generally considered the first booker in pro wrestling history, adopted the ring name Billy Sandow in tribute. (Sandow is pictured below.)
Ernest Roeber vs August Faust
This 1901 match was a featured clip at the beginning of the standard WWE introduction that ran from 2005-2008. Unfortunately, I don’t have a clip of the match itself, but at least part of it appears to exist in WWE’s vault. The match was originally released as part of the 1901 film Roeber Wrestling Match. It is the second oldest known footage of a pro wrestling match in front of a live crowd in existence.
While the first three volumes of this series covering the mostly pre-1950s period consisted mostly of 1-3 minute clips with occasional exceptions, you’ll find that most matches are complete in the 1950s. In fact, if you’re looking solely at American wrestling, there are probably more complete matches available to us in the 1950s than in the 1970s.
There are many reasons for this. A major one is the exceptional Russ and Sylvia Davis Collection released by the Chicago Film Archives on YouTube. CFA has uncovered hundreds of never or rarely before seen matches from the time period in pristine quality. CFA still releases new matches occasionally, but most of the matches were made available in 2015. It should also be noted that quite a few NWA Chicago matches were already in circulation in trading circles prior to the 2015 release, so not every NWA Chicago match originated from the Davis Collection. Chicago was a frequent stop for NWA World Champion Lou Thesz and also gives us our earliest extended look at major stars like Verne Gagne, Dick the Bruiser, The Crusher, Buddy Rogers, Gorgeous George, Killer Kowalski, The Sheik and many other legends. While Chicago makes up the bulk of the American footage, we also have extensive complete matches from Los Angeles, along with some footage from Buffalo and Dallas. As the decade comes to a close, we also start seeing some footage from Capitol Wrestling, the precursor to the World Wide Wrestling Federation, which would eventually become WWE. Counting their history would be the only way Vince McMahon’s WWF could even enter the ballpark of accurately stating that they were “for over 50 years, the revolutionary force in sports entertainment” at the beginning of all of their TV shows in 1995.
Another reason for the increase in footage is the landscape of wrestling itself changing so much. The 1950s were when pro wrestling was introduced to Japan, with footage dating back to 1953. Rikidozan became a postwar cultural phenomenon. Most of the JWA matches that we have from the 1950s are somewhat clipped, but a few gems are not, most notably matches against wrestlers like Thesz and Don Leo Jonathan.
Finally, some French wrestling from the INA archives entered circulation in recent years and it has been a revelation. We’ll talk far more about that later, but needless to say, dozens if not hundreds of top-tier classics have been uncovered as the good folks of Segunda Caida make their way through the archive. The French footage really kicks into high gear in 1957, when it becomes the majority of available wrestling footage ech year.
The 1950s are a prolific decade for wrestling around the world.
In America, the 1950s was a boom period for professional wrestling because of television, but the 1960s represents the end of that boom and the beginning of a different landscape. There were many reasons the wrestling boom ended, with television overexposure being the biggest contributor. By the end of the decade, ratings were in decline and producers were starting to lose interest as a result. The NWA was weakened and new independent territories formed that recognized their own champions, the most notable among them Vincent J. McMahon’s World Wide Wrestling Federation out of New York and Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association out of Minneapolis. The NWA also had trouble finding a worthy successor to Lou Thesz, which led to him coming out of retirement in 1963. Wrestlers like Gene Kiniski and Pat O’Connor are legitimate Hall of Famers and wrestling legends, but they were less successful NWA champions than Thesz.
In Japan, the popularity of wrestling continued to thrive under the stardom of Rikidozan until his death in 1963 at 39 years old. We saw the ascension of his proteges Shohei “Giant” Baba and Antonio Inoki as stars in the 1960s and by the end of the decade, the rival International Wrestling Enterprise was formed. Likewise, the most prolific women’s wrestling company in history (some would just say the most prolific wrestling company in history) — All Japan Women — formed in 1968.
Because wrestling operated on far more of a regional basis in the 1960s than the 1950s, footage is less accessible during this time, and it remains that way until the VCR starts showing up in households in the late 70s. Still, while what we have doesn’t tell the full story of 60s wrestling, we do see some fascinating hints that reveal plenty on their own from all around the world, and much like in the 1950s, there are more complete matches than you might think. A key part of that is the continued availability of French Catch footage, but we also see an increase in Japanese footage and a treasure trove of fun clips from Toronto and Portland. We also continue to see footage from Los Angeles and Dallas as the decade progresses.
Until the 1970s, even as the territory system grew, all of professional wrestling seemed to share in successes and failures. When wrestling had its booms and busts during the Great Depression, or its mainstream boom in the 1950s, or its decline in the 1960s, it was up or down everywhere. The 1970s was the introduction of an uneven landscape that remains today. There were now winners and losers.
In 1974, Dusty Rhodes turned babyface, which led to an amazing and extended period of success for the Florida territory. Georgia and the Carolinas remained pretty consistent and strong for most of the 1970s as well. The Japanese scene was continuing to grow. Baba and Inoki were not stars on the level of Rikidozan, just as the next wave of stars weren’t at the level of Baba and Inoki, but wrestling was still healthy. The WWWF remained very strong, powered by the stardom of Bruno Sammartino, the championship reign of Pedro Morales, TV in the New York market and a lock on Madison Square Garden, the most prestigious arena in America. By 1974, they also had Andre the Giant as a top featured attraction and were able to book him on tours around the world.
In other cases, the decade started off strong and faded as the years progressed. That was true for the AWA, California and Detroit. Stampede, which almost closed its doors for good, needed a full scale reinvention when the old way of doing business stopped working, and found purpose rebuilding around smaller and more athletic wrestlers.
If the change in the in-ring style in Stampede predicted the long-term future of pro wrestling, the shifts happening elsewhere predicted the immediate decade ahead. Jack Brisco, an NWA World Champion and major star in the mid-1970s, was heavily influenced by great “pure” wrestlers like Lou Thesz and Danny Hodge, but would eventually seem passe when colorful, muscular characters like Superstar Graham, who copied the interview style of Muhammad Ali, became a major star. The change was less a flip of a switch and more of a gradual move. Bob Backlund, a square personality but talented pro wrestler very much in the mold of Jack Brisco, became the WWWF World Champion in 1978 and was accepted by fans at the beginning, but soundly rejected by the end of his run on top.
In 1972, an Atlanta businessman named Ted Turner started a UHF station called WTCG where he featured professional wrestling in a 6:00 time slot on Saturday nights, which was the first show to really do notable ratings. (When he expanded the show to two hours, the ratings increased even more.) Within four years, Turner put the station on satellite, which made it the first SuperStation and led to Georgia Championship Wrestling being available in many markets nationwide. Likewise, in 1973, a premium television network called HBO (short for Home Box Office) started broadcasting a show called World Championship Boxing, which hinted at a future for pro wrestling on pay-per-view. Wrestling was showing early signs of change. While most territories were insulated from the impact of cable TV at first, this meant that some fans would be able to not just read about what was happening in magazines, but possibly even see wrestling in other places.
Let’s say that a booker lays out an angle in the Mid-Atlantic area, then becomes a booker in Florida and lays out a similar angle in Miami a year later. It might even feature at least one of the same players. Are fans who saw both versions of the angle to think they only witnessed coincidence? In addition, fans who grew up in parts of the country with subpar performers who headlined shows in bad matches were now exposed to great wrestling happening elsewhere. These types of revelations couldn’t help but erode the mystique of the home promotion, and in some ways professional wrestling as a whole. Slowly but surely, wrestling fans who could at least play along with the idea that they were fans of real sport found it more challenging to suspend their disbelief. Sensing that wrestling was changing, Dory and Terry Funk decided to close the Amarillo territory in 1975, believing that the rise of cable television would render their business model obsolete.
By the end of the decade, a new form of technology called a Video Cassette Recorder, or VCR, started to become a household institution. This device allowed users to record shows from television to watch again later. The most devoted wrestling fans in the world seized on this new technology and started taping wrestling, not just for themselves, but to trade with other fans in part of the country. In previous times, hardcore fans who wanted to stay up to date on happenings around the country could only subscribe to wrestling magazines or fan-made newsletters. With the advent of the VCR, those newsletters were often accompanied by a videotape of local wrestling.
In some ways, these fans were more forward-thinking than the promoters who aired the wrestling were, as most promoters simply taped over old episodes to save money. To this day, so much wrestling footage only exists because a wrestling fan somewhere preserved it. We start seeing hints of this trend in the late 70s, and by the early 80s, it was common practice — not just nationally, but internationally. Soon, wrestling fans, including those who had aspirations of becoming professional wrestlers, would have a way they could view wrestling from around the world, which would prove itself a game changer, as we’ll see in the 1980s.