Monday, August 7, 2023

The History of American Wrestling

Wrestling has been popular in the United States for centuries. The earliest forms of wrestling in America were derived from Native American wrestling styles, as well as European styles such as Greco-Roman wrestling and catch-as-catch-can wrestling.

In the 19th century, wrestling became increasingly popular as a form of entertainment. Traveling wrestlers would perform at carnivals and other public events.

In the early 20th century, professional wrestling took on a more organized form, and in the 1970s, the World Wide Wrestling Federation (known today as WWE) and Jim Crockett Promotions (JCP) began broadcasting wrestling shows on television nationally, with the WWWF presenting "Championship Wrestling", and JCP producing "World Wide Wrestling".

Wrestling reached its peak of popularity in the United States in the 1980s. Television was becoming more popular as well, which caused a significant change in American wrestling. In the early days of wrestling, matches were typically held in front of live audiences. However, with television, wrestling matches could be seen by millions of people around the world. This helped to popularize wrestling and make it a household name, as matches were regularly televised on national television with levels of viewership never seen before. The same could be said for wrestlers themselves, as stars such Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, and Sgt. Slaughter became household names.

The WWWF (known as the WWF at this point), JCP, and the AWA were considered the "Big Three" of the industry, with WWF-TV and JCP-TV running in syndication, and AWA programs broadcast on ESPN. JCP was a member of the NWA (which was a governing body for regional wrestling promotions back then) and represented the organization with its show names having, "NWA" in the titles. However, JCP was such a major presence on national television, many fans thought JCP was the NWA, instead of a member of the governing body. In 1988, Ted Turner purchased JCP, and the company was rebranded to WCW.

In the early 1990s, wrestling's popularity began to decline. The AWA was a casualty of this decline, closing its doors in 1991 after already facing financial issues beginning in the late 1980s. In the late 1990s, wrestling experienced another boom, this one also led by the WWF and WCW. Cable television was also increasing in popularity, which allowed wrestling to reach a wider audience. By the mid-1990s, wrestling was once again of the most popular forms of entertainment in America, with WWF Monday Night Raw and WCW Monday Nitro two of the most-watched shows on TV. Hulk Hogan was a major part of this boom as well, this time as the leader of the New World Order (NWO) faction, which is still popular to this day. Other wrestlers who played a major part included The Undertaker, The Rock, and Steve Austin.

ECW also played a role in the wrestling boom of the 1990s, providing an alternative to the WWF and WCW with its hardcore style of wrestling. Although ECW's attempt to survive as an alternative did not last, the story of its successes, trials, and tribulations are no less interesting, as detailed in a documentary on ECW that was produced by the WWF after the company purchased ECW's assets. The DVD on the Rise & Fall of ECW can be purchased here.

A big difference between the American and Japanese wrestling scenes is that it is very difficult for hardcore promotions to thrive in America. State athletic commissions in America have eliminated the use of "weapons" (anything that is not a part of the human body). Meanwhile, in Japan, Big Japan Pro-Wrestling has existed for 28 years and they can have shows anywhere, without having to tone down their product. That would be impossible for BJW to do in America, due to many state athletic commissions and their rules regarding what wrestling promotions are allowed to do.

BJW has a television show on Fighting Samurai TV in Japan, a cable network that is dedicated to wrestling. Although there has been interest from American networks in the BJW product, none of them were networks that would be competitive with networks that feature major promotions today. Besides, even if BJW were on an American network, they would likely have to contend with groups holding extreme views that are against televised violence and would attempt to have BJW-TV removed from American airwaves.

BJW has been able to get around those potential roadblocks and successfully branch out to the American market via DVD, exporting their own DVDs to America. In 2009, BJW created an English website that I wrote a column for, promoting their DVDs to the English-reading audience. Today, the company continues to export DVDs overseas, and now also has a streaming service.

Although difficult, it is possible for a hardcore style promotion to thrive in America long-term as a major promotion. It's simply a matter of knowing how to publicize its product effectively so that the target audience can be reached. There is room for all styles of promotions, as the industry continues to evolve.

With that evolution, WWE continues to be of the main face of the American wrestling scene. WCW went out of business in 2001 and was eventually replaced by TNA as WWE's main competitor. Today known as Impact Wrestling, the company still has a notable presence in American wrestling (while interestingly now being owned by Canada's Anthem Sports & Entertainment). The three brands that generally get the most attention from American fans today are WWE, its developmental brand (NXT), and AEW. Another company that gets a lot of attention is Women Of Wrestling, which impressively, is able to attract a viewership of over 300,000 via syndication, without having a prime-time cable slot. Today's standout talents on the American wrestling scene include Grand Slam Champion AJ Styles, former multi-time World Champion Jeff Hardy, former multi-time World Champion Shinsuke Nakamura, and current Impact World Champion Alex Shelley

Wrestling has had a significant impact on popular culture, being featured in movies and video games. For example, the wrestling industry was the main focus of the film "The Wrestler" starring Mickey Rourke, Rocky had an exhibition fight with Thunderlips (played by Hulk Hogan) in the movie "Rocky 3", and sports games developer & publisher MicroLeague created, “MicroLeague Wrestling”.

And just as how wrestling has had an influence on pop culture, the wrestling industry has been influenced by a variety of factors that have made it undergo changes over the years. One of them is the popularity of other forms of entertainment, such as MMA for example. The rise of MMA's popularity has led to WWE spotlighting wrestlers who were successful in MMA, such as former UFC Heavyweight Champion Brock Lesnar, and Ronda Rousey, who was undefeated for three years as UFC's Bantamweight Champion. In Lesnar's case, he already had been a successful WWE superstar before dominating UFC, but it's fair to say that his additional success in MMA made him an even bigger superstar in WWE's eyes.

A second factor is the rise of streaming. In the past, most smaller wrestling promotions had a difficult time getting exposure because they were not on major television networks. However, with the rise of streaming, these promotions can now reach a wider audience by streaming their shows online. This has led to a boom in the number of independent wrestling promotions. If the promotion is publicized in a way that attracts interest from other areas of the country, as well as overseas, a strong brand will be built for the promotion, taking it to another level and attracting a TV deal as well as potentially an opportunity to distribute DVDs internationally.

A third factor is the changing cultural landscape of the United States. In the early days of wrestling, it was largely seen as a masculine pursuit, with women's matches buried in the midcard, even if the matches involved a champion. However, in recent years, there has been a growing acceptance of women's wrestling. Today, there are many successful female wrestlers, and women's wrestling is a popular attraction for fans of all ages, with women's matches often either being in the main event or the match that stole the show.

With the many changes that occurred over the decade, the future of American wrestling is difficult to predict. However, what is clear is that the thriving industry has a rich and fascinating history, and it will continue to be enjoyed by millions of fans for many years to come.

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