Jump to content
Pro Wrestling Only

Home video's impact on pro wrestling?


Recommended Posts

Does anyone think that home video had a big part to play in the popularity of pro wrestling in the 80s? Not just the WWF videos, but other promotions as well. For the first time, it was easily possible to see wrestlers/promotions/storylines that fans may have just have heard about, as well as seeing the early years of certain wrestlers. Along with the rise of cable, this had a big impact on the expansion era IMO.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

This is coming from a slightly different perspective but as a new fan at the age of 13, I know I watched every match on SummerSlam 1991 at least a dozen times. Obviously I didn't learn everything doing this, but that opportunity to rewatch helped me appreciate wrestling.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Here's a prologue I drafted before I decided to go in a very different direction with it. It's slightly broader in scope than this thread, but I think it fits here.


Wrestling On Fast Forward

A Kind Rewind Of How Hardcore Fans Played The Videotape And Gave Pause To Professional Wrestling

Wrestling enthusiasts now live happily in the land of milk and honey. Sure, we will never have every match that we know was taped available to us, but generally speaking, historical footage is both plentiful and marketed reasonably well. Since the death of World Championship Wrestling (WCW) in 2001, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) has purchased the tape libraries of many defunct wrestling promotions — Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW), Smoky Mountain Wrestling (SMW), Mid South Wrestling, the American Wrestling Association (AWA) and World Class Championship Wrestling (WCCW), to name only a few. However, hardcore fans — a label we’ll apply to those wrestling fans more devoted than the average viewer — saw the value in older wrestling footage decades before WWE realized its potential.

In the earliest days of televised wrestling, most promoters simply taped over their master footage to reduce videotape costs. With the benefit of hindsight, this choice would prove to be penny wise and dollar foolish, but it’s hard to criticize promoters too much. Yes, they lacked the foresight to recognize that technology and a growing customer base could turn their tape library into a lucrative revenue stream, but that was not what professional wrestling was. History only existed in the relative sense – it mattered when it could help draw a house, but it did not matter at all if it was detrimental to that goal. The idea of a Hall of Fame to recognize and acknowledge the contributions of past performers while building interest in past footage would have been not only foreign, but even viewed as pointless to wrestling promoters. There was only one way to make money in professional wrestling: the live gate. The future was finite, only extending to the conclusion of the next show. The present was all that mattered. This mentality maintained course with only minor adjustments required as pay-per-view and television became key sources of revenue.

In a less connected time, the wrestling fan experience was vastly different than it is today. No one was online in 1963 criticizing the booking wisdom of Bruno Sammartino defeating Buddy Rogers to win the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF) World Title in under a minute, and most of us only saw the stars of our local promotion. Sure, we might see bloody pictures on the newsstands or read results from a card that happened a few thousand miles away, but the only feasible way to experience professional wrestling was to watch the localized hype on television and attend the resulting live event.

For hardcore fans, a lack of opportunity to view wrestling in other places should not be mistaken for a lack of interest in wrestling in other places. Fan clubs were formed and newsletters were written by hardcore fans all over the country, clipping newspaper articles and sharing results of local cards with those who lived elsewhere and did the same. Call it a social network without the supporting technology -- it still wasn’t possible to see other wrestling for those not blessed with an enormous travel budget, but it was at least possible to read about pro wrestling everywhere and stay informed of the action in territories across the country.

The arrival of the VCR as a middle class household institution forever revolutionized the way that wrestling could be watched. While it may be assumed that fan clubs and newsletters would become obsolete, in fact the very the opposite occurred because they now had a natural companion. Imagine a hardcore fan in Portland, Oregon sending a newsletter and videotape of Pacific Northwest Wrestling (PNW) to another hardcore fan in Memphis, Tennessee. The Memphis fan would then send a newsletter and a tape of Memphis Wrestling to the Portland fan. This same exchange of information and footage happened between fans in almost every city imaginable, to the point that the most devoted hardcore fans often ended up with both a high postage bill and a tape library that included a nice sampling of wrestling from all over the country.

Although dozens of newsletters existed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the most famous and enduring newsletter was founded in 1983 by Dave Meltzer, a college student from San Jose, California. The Wrestling Observer Newsletter (WON) captured news and results from promotions all over the country. While it was controversial for covering wrestling with no pretenses that it was a real sport, the WON gained readers within the industry, including but not limited to promoters Bill Watts and Paul Boesch, and wrestler Terry Funk. Watts encouraged the younger wrestlers in Mid South to subscribe to the WON to learn about the wrestling business, while Boesch took Meltzer under his wing to teach him the philosophical aspects of promoting pro wrestling.

Funk recommended to Meltzer that he follow the wrestling scene in Japan because it was a good indicator of where wrestling in the United States would go a few years later. As a result, the WON soon expanded its coverage and Meltzer began receiving videotapes of matches recorded from Japanese television. The hard-hitting, exciting style in the Japanese promotions appealed to Meltzer’s sensibilities as a wrestling fan, and he began praising Japanese matches in the WON and trading tapes with newsletter subscribers. Hardcore wrestling fandom may have been a local undertaking, but it quickly developed global reach.

While the videotape was a great medium for hardcore fans, wrestling promoters probably looked at the concept quite differently. We were still years away from a booming video rental market, and promoters remained laser focused on drawing their next house. It was an insular way to view the changes happening, and perhaps there was comfort in the familiar. Regardless, it was a very narrow perspective of wrestling’s possibilities in a world with rapidly emerging technologies, distribution platforms and revenue streams. Accounts vary on the extent to which fans perceived wrestling to be real, but 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.

If ordinary wrestling fans didn’t enjoy the local wrestling shows, then they would simply stop watching it. But hardcore fans are not ordinary wrestling fans. Instead of no longer watching, we simply found a new way to watch. We started to view wrestling as a performance, and the best performers were held in high regard. Matches that showcased athleticism, kept a clear narrative or engaged an audience were considered good, while matches with poor looking moves, illogical action and a disinterested crowd were considered bad. The winner and loser were less important than the quality of the match by these standards. Even the bad guys, who we would later learn were called heels by wrestling insiders, were given credit for angering a crowd and crafting a compelling match. By simple virtue of watching wrestling this way, hardcore fans created a viewing dogma that would persevere for decades.

The revolution was only partially televised. In some cases, particularly adept hardcore fans were able to sneak camcorders into live shows and record them, distributing copies to other fans. While many of the recordings were awful in video quality and could be difficult to watch, this practice led to the discovery and preservation of the occasional title change or classic encounter, matches that would otherwise be lost to the dustbin of history. On the October 6, 1997 episode of the WWF’s Monday Night RAW, footage of the infamous “curtain call” from Madison Square Garden involving Scott Hall, Kevin Nash, Shawn Michaels and Hunter Hearst Helmsley aired on television. The WWF did not film this house show in full, so they used footage shot by a fan in the crowd that was available in tape trading circles. Wrestling promotions may not have raved about fancams, as shows filmed in the audience were often called among tape traders, but they were clearly aware they existed, and they leveraged the practice to their own benefit occasionally.

The proliferation of available footage from all over the world, while exciting, could also be overwhelming. What matches should a hardcore fan watch first? Which matches are the best? Crediting wrestling manager Jim Cornette — as much a hardcore fan as anyone — and his childhood friend Norm Dooley, Meltzer introduced star ratings to the WON in 1985. An all-time classic that could reasonably be compared to any match ever would be a five-star (typed as *****) match, while a horrible match with little or no redeeming value would be a DUD. A full range of ratings in between was available, and half-stars and quarter-stars were also acceptable. Meltzer would even reach deep into the sewers of the rating system for a notably awful match that he felt went into negative star territory. While many hardcore fans never embraced the star rating system, it eventually became an accepted form of shorthand communication that would indicate how good a match was perceived to be.

While hardcore fans hardly constituted a majority of wrestling fans, the defensive reaction from many wrestling power brokers was a harbinger of things to come. If the videotape presented a threat to the security of the territories, then cable television was Code Red, an indicator that no one was safe promoting wrestling in the same old fashion. Cable television allowed fans all over the country — not just hardcore fans — to view the same wrestling promotions. The days of a local babyface having a big run in another part of the country as a top heel would be far more difficult. The days of a booker recycling the same angles in different locations were over. In other words, same-old, same-old promotion of pro wrestling on a local basis became nearly impossible.

Most of the territories were unable to adapt to the changing landscape and were eventually euthanized by Vince McMahon’s fledgling World Wrestling Federation (WWF, later WWE). McMahon signed most of the top talent from territories all over the country and began promoting shows under the WWF banner in the same markets where those talents were already established, a tactic that would have been taboo in a previous era. Along the way, McMahon was able to gain exclusive promoting rights in many key arenas and secure local television time slots in major markets. WWF television was immaculately produced in comparison to the home territories, making the local shows, and in some cases the talent left behind, look minor league. Many territories put up a big fight but while some survived longer than others, the WWF eventually won out. When the 1980s ended, less than a handful of territories remained, and even then, not one was thriving. They were all operating on borrowed time.

Because of the death of the territories, there were also now fewer places than ever for a professional wrestler to earn a living and hone his craft. As each small promotion closed its doors, the wrestling philosophy they embodied only survived in a very conditional, piecemeal fashion. If a group still had any active wrestlers who felt like they learned something there, then they would pass those ideas and lessons along to their younger peers. Most territories were led by former wrestlers who built a promotion in their own image, encouraging their talent to work a similar style that they did. The best wrestlers in the business were usually those who combined the most durable concepts and practices they gathered from working in as many territories as possible. Aside from the obvious concerns those inside the wrestling business had with the idea of a wrestling monopoly, hardcore fans had concerns of their own. Would everyone look the same way, learn the same way and work the same way? Would there now be only one right way to present professional wrestling? If wrestling is the same no matter where it takes place, then what is the value in seeing wrestling in other places?

Even as professional wrestling in the United States was in a transitional period, the international wrestling scene was thriving. The Japanese scene became increasingly diverse as the 1980s progressed, and videotape of the best matches offered young American wrestlers an exciting style to emulate — be it the fast-paced athletic style of All Japan Women (AJW), the mat-based style of the Universal Wrestling Federation (UWF), the hybrid style of New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) or the more traditional style of All Japan Pro Wrestling (AJPW). Even something called garbage wrestling, a weapons-heavy brawling style fueled by Atsushi Onita and Frontier Martial Arts Wrestling (FMW), was gaining traction by the end of the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the early 1990s was a fruitful time period for lucha libre, as they experienced a boom period fueled by new stars, promotional wars and a strong Mexican economy. One of the most popular new stars was Rey Misterio Jr. Misterio began wrestling in 1989 at just 14 years of age. He was only 5’3” and was under 150 pounds, but he was an exceptional athlete, performing high-flying moves that no one else in the already aerial world of lucha libre, or anywhere else in the world, could do. In most cases, a wrestler his size would have been classified as a mini, but because Misterio was so young, promoters thought he might still get taller and were hesitant to typecast him. By the time they realized he would not grow any taller, he was already an established name in Mexico.

Misterio’s chief rivals were Psicosis and Juventud Guerrera, both of whom worked a similar daredevil style and broke into wrestling around the same time. In an attempt to keep their matches fresh and incorporate new moves and sequences, Misterio and his rivals began watching videotape of matches from the Japanese promotions to look for ideas. Misterio’s rise to stardom coincided with increased availability of lucha libre on videotape, along with positive coverage from Meltzer in the WON. Misterio was soon regarded as the best high flyer in the world and had a solid following among American hardcore fans.

Misterio was not the first to incorporate Japanese influences in lucha libre, but he was perhaps the first to do it in a 1990s way, which meant that he watched the Japanese matches on videotape instead of performing in front of Japanese crowds, at least initially. Later, on the strength of the reputation he developed in Mexico, he landed bookings in Japan, where he wrestled for the Wrestle Association R (WAR) promotion as a popular performer and earned lucrative return bookings. One reason Misterio was able to gain a following so quickly in Japan was that he started with advantages that his predecessors simply did not have. Because he followed the Japanese wrestling scene on videotape, he had a better understanding of the style than a young wrestler would have in a previous generation, where they had only anecdotes from veterans as possible resources before working in the country for the first time.

The lucha influence had been part of the Japanese style for many years, specifically among the junior heavyweights of New Japan Pro Wrestling. Tiger Mask emerged as a superstar in New Japan during the early 1980s by incorporating moves he learned working in Mexico and Europe. He and Dynamite Kid wrestled a series of influential and popular matches, starting a tradition that would later be continued and improved upon by stars like Jushin Liger, the Great Sasuke, Chris Benoit and Shinjiro Otani. Additionally, Japanese wrestler Gran Hamada was sent to Mexico in the early 1980s when New Japan promoters found it difficult to book him because of his size. He gained a following in Mexico and eventually started Universal Lucha Libre back in Japan in 1990, booking Mexican stars like El Hijo del Santo, Fuerza Guerrera, Negro Casas, Kendo, Super Astro and others.

Back in the United States, the independent wrestling scene rose from the ashes of the territories. While the term “independent” was colloquially used to describe smaller wrestling promotions with no television show, virtually every wrestling promotion in the country operated independently by 1988. Even the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA), pro wrestling’s oldest governing body, largely existed in name only with WCW using the NWA letters as window dressing to enhance its own credibility.

Some of the earliest breakout stars to emerge from the independent landscape were the Lightning Kid and Jerry Lynn. In the early 1990s, Kid and Lynn had a series of matches that continued in the tradition of the territory scene with a strong focus on psychology and traditional babyface and heel roles. However, they also embraced the trends taking hold around the world, incorporating modern high-flying moves and submissions. They were even able to take their show on the road — a rarity by this time — as the Minnesota-based rivalry was featured in the Global Wrestling Federation (GWF) of Dallas, Texas, a promotion which had a television time slot on ESPN. Each Kid versus Lynn match was worked differently than the one before it, and each match offered a proposal of what great professional wrestling in a post-territory world might look like. With so little experience, it was surprising that Kid and Lynn were so seasoned and were able to perform at such a high level. How did they do it? Where did they learn these tricks of the trade?

The answer? The videotape. Observant wrestlers could apply aspects of the Japanese and Mexican styles that were relevant to them in front of American crowds. It would be wrong to say that this new approach was without major pitfalls. It’s one thing to learn a new wrestling style by going directly to the home promotion and performing in front of its crowds. Wrestlers had done that for decades. However, it’s a different animal to watch something on videotape and simply copy the exciting moves without understanding the context in which they were used and the audience for which they were performed. Independent shows filled with wrestlers doing second-rate versions of their favorite Japanese matches would become all too common. However, the best young wrestlers did not merely copy what they saw on tape, but seamlessly blended elements of the international styles in matches that appealed to American audiences.

By 1992, the worlds were converging. In the same year that Lightning Kid and Jerry Lynn were earning bookings with Universal, the Los Angeles-based WWA promotion ran a weekend of shows headlined by a surreal mix of stars from both FMW and the lucha libre Universal Wrestling Association (UWA) promotion. The stars of Mexico’s AAA promotion received greater attention because of both increased footage availability and their tremendous success promoting in Los Angeles, drawing a larger crowd than the WWF’s Wrestlemania VII in the same L.A. Sports Arena on multiple occasions. Wisdom within wrestling no longer traveled on a one-way street, as young wrestlers were just as likely to teach older wrestlers new techniques as older wrestlers were to explain the tricks of working a crowd to younger wrestlers. It was impossible to objectively state who was influencing who, as in the era of videotape, everyone in wrestling was both teacher and student, both for better and for worse.

Even wrestling traditionalists who downplayed the impact of the changes couldn’t help but feel the effects. The wrestlers who embraced the videotape and used it to further their careers largely had two things in common: first, they were undersized and second, they were athletically superior to the bigger stars in the game. The established standard of match quality was more important to hardcore fans than ever, some may even argue to the exclusion of everything else entertaining about wrestling, and Meltzer certainly pulled no punches when writing about subpar matches in the WON. Because of Hulk Hogan’s rise to stardom in the 1980s, the prevailing belief within wrestling at the time was that superstardom was founded in physical appearance more than wrestling ability. Hardcore fans despised this approach to promoting pro wrestling and began speaking openly about what they saw as one of the biggest obstacles to their version of good wrestling being the standard — steroids.

It would be foolish to assume that bad wrestlers took steroids and good wrestlers did not, but it would be even more foolish to argue that the focus on size and muscles in 1980s wrestling did not happen, often to the detriment of good matches. Training in the big leagues sometimes focused less on cardiovascular conditioning and practicing moves in the ring, and more on lifting weights to look good on television, producing many wrestlers that were more physical specimen than professional wrestler. The top wrestling promotions educated their fans that the muscular wrestlers were the toughest and most credible wrestlers in the business.

If the WON was already disliked by many within the business for its willingness to report the truth about wrestling’s inner workings, then it would become hated for its honest reporting of steroid use among wrestlers. As the WON gained prominence — a major accomplishment for a mimeographed and poorly edited fanzine with no national circulation or advertising budget — Meltzer gained a wider platform, writing a regular column for The National in 1990-1991. Despite originally being hired to cover the industry from a comedic point of view, Meltzer was successful in covering professional wrestling in more serious fashion, which meant that the WWF could no longer ignore him. Criticism of the WWF’s business practices was now receiving attention from a wider audience. Soon, even friendly media personalities like Arsenio Hall were asking Hulk Hogan about his history of steroid use, leaving Hogan to make a legendary tactical mistake by lying in response. The arrest of Dr. George Zahorian, the WWF’s in-house physician, along with buzz surrounding sex scandals was enough for McMahon to institute a steroid testing policy, fire key front office personnel and most importantly, phase Hogan out as his top star. McMahon even went as far as removing Hogan from television and taking him off the road for a year in the hope that the controversy would go away in his absence. Just like that, hardcore fans nearly brought down the WWF empire.

Fortunately, the videotape ensures that wrestling can never be destroyed, as its livelihood exists almost solely in the eye of the beholder. The territories are as thriving as we want them to be, and we are always a few clicks away from a wrestling boom. Turning on a VCR — later a DVD player and today your favorite TV set top box — can immediately transport us to any era, promotion or geographic region we desire. It’s the closest we will ever get to time travel. Unlike the territory days, the past now exists as more than a matter of convenience, although it can also be treated as the present at a moment’s notice. The future remains finite, but almost irrelevantly so. Until we have lived and re-lived every moment as many times as we could ever want, wrestling remains vibrant and alive.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

From personal experience, home video rentals were how I was able to view wrestling prior to my 1991 first television viewing. In 1997 I started tape trading via newsletters which introduced me to ECW, AJPW, NJPW, AAA, Smokey Mountain and Memphis. Never mind all of the indies and God knows what else. By 1999 I had my own awful website and often several VHS recorders running all day recording tapes and viewing what was coming through my Uni door. I probably should have been studying more. Good times.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

From personal experience, home video rentals were how I was able to view wrestling prior to my 1991 first television viewing. In 1997 I started tape trading via newsletters which introduced me to ECW, AJPW, NJPW, AAA, Smokey Mountain and Memphis. Never mind all of the indies and God knows what else. By 1999 I had my own awful website and often several VHS recorders running all day recording tapes and viewing what was coming through my Uni door. I probably should have been studying more. Good times.

You're in the UK, aren't you Sidebottom? I had similar experiences with tape trading, starting in 1994 with Rob Butcher. A very positive review of The Night The Line Was Crossed in Power Slam convinced me to take the plunge. Butcher himself noted in his newsletter that 1994 was a breakthrough year for tape trading in the UK.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

It definitely expanded what one could see, especially when you didn't have cable. I was exposed to AWA TV growing up, which then switched to WWF in mid-1985. I remember renting the heck out of the PWI Lord of the Rings tape, and was actually able to see Ric Flair, Kerry Von Erich, and some of the other territorial wrestlers I had only read about in the Apter mags. I remember waiting for what seemed like forever for WrestleMania III to come out on tape so we could rent it and see what happened.


That was a great article, Loss!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 3 weeks later...

I'm a really huge Memphis fan, although I grew up in Iowa. The only access to Memphis I had as a kid was through the Apter magazines. There were also two videotapes (one was called something to the effect of Maniacs and Madmen which I can't find) and this commercially released videotape I found as a sixth grader at K-Mart:



When I started to get back into wrestling again (around 1995), I started to look for Memphis on videotape. I bought a couple of them online, and haven't looked back since.


This was already much more eloquently stated above, but videotape was hugely influential in the '80s into the '90s. Coliseum Videos were awesome as well and had wide distribution.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

think i said this before but i always wondered if coliseum video didn't have some workrate nerd helping to pick the matches, or if it was just randomly throwing crap against the wall


the number of bret & shawn singles matches on those things, before they got any sort of big push, is the main thing that stands out to me

Link to comment
Share on other sites

As I child I didn't give a shit what was 'new' on VHS. I would cared about the wrestling section in the local video stores. If it was TOO OLD...I wouldn't watch it and it if was TOO NEW, I would avoid it as I most likely already saw it. But that stuff in the middle (and there was a lot) was all fair game. My mom would go to the video store every Friday so I would grab two-three wrestling tapes and watch them over the weekend. If I didn't have VHS in my life I would have missed every single PPV and big event within the WCW and WWE tape library. I also would have never got to sit down with two buddies of mine to find out (all together) what the fuck was the big deal about ECW.

The importance of VHS cannot be understated enough. There are some wrestling promotions (ECW) who can attribute a significant portion of its success to the tape trading.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.


  • Create New...