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Wrestling in the 50's vs. 80's

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#1 fxnj

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Posted 21 August 2016 - 04:33 PM



It happens with every generation. I watched a sit down interview with Buddy Rogers where he shat all over the early 80s WWWF that Titans review.

I suspect he was raising valid points in that interview too. 



Well, let's see:

Rogers says some of the things they're doing today insult people's intelligence and that there's no need to resort to them. He thinks they should get back to wrestling and that there should be more rules. In his day there were suspensions and fines, and he tells some story about how he was suspended for two years from the state of New York for shoving a guy after a match was over. The interviewer mentions that nowadays guys are bringing chairs into the ring and Rogers says they use everything next to machine guns if they can carry it in there. He says it's ridiculous because there's some super wrestlers like Backlund and Muraco. The interviewer blames it on the promoters and Rogers goes off on a tangent about how wrestling can still draw because it's the second oldest sport in the world next to running. The interviewer senses that Rogers wouldn't mind getting back into the sport and having some control over it and Rogers admits he wouldn't mind getting back into the business in a "supervisory" role. Rogers knows he could do a lot for wrestling and mentions a young guy he managed in Florida who is the greatest athlete he's seen in wrestling in the last 25 years and would set the place on fire. That man being Jimmy Snuka.

Rogers calls wrestling the greatest show on earth. It's got action, it's got strength, it's got "everything about it," and if they resorted more to wrestling it would even be greater. The public don't want to see constant kicking and hair pulling. They want to see some holds. In Rogers' day they had holds where a guy would give up or you'd beat a guy with a hold and you hardly see that today. The interviewer says everyone has a costume these days and Rogers says you don't need that. There's such a thing as charisma and being colourful but you can overdo that too. 

Later on, the interview gets a good line in about how Rogers used to hang out with Nat King Cole and how he couldn't imagine Backlund hobnobbing with Barbara Streisand.


You can interpret Rogers' comments anyway you like. Maybe there was more wrestling in Rogers' day but there was also a hell of a lot of the stuff that "insulted people's intelligence." And everything that is wrong about wrestling "today" can be found in Sheik vs. Slaughter, which last I checked is considered pretty much the height of that era. 


Thought this comment in the ageism thread deserved more discussion than getting lost in a debate about the nuances of rspw. I would have to say that I think Rogers was pretty much spot on with his comments regarding the degeneracy in the working style of the kayfabe era. As I watch more Golden Age stuff I'm seriously starting to take a view similar to that of Bruno Sammartino, in that things were great before the 80's and 90's took the US scene down a descent into over-reliance on gimmicks and cartoonish tropes, from which it's only recovered in the last decade or so thanks to a burgeoning market of puro-influenced independent promotions.


The folks who go on about mystic objective standards that are constantly evolving seem to view early wrestling with a view of it being primitive and unskilled compared to newer shit, yet I had pretty much the opposite reaction when I went through the stuff available from the 1920's-40's. The glimpses we have of the pro working style as it was originally developed by the Gold Dust Trio are fantastic. Capable shooters like Shikat and Don George going out and having matches that are basically high-end shoot-style, built around mat work that's beautiful yet still ruggedly uncooperative looking with just the right amount of hard strikes and showiness to make things more interesting. 


The post-WW2 era saw the rise of more flamboyant workers like Gorgeous George and Buddy Rogers, but the guys back then were still very capable grapplers, who, beneath the pomp and circumstance, were still more or less carrying on the style of the forefathers with just a touch more theatrics. A headlock might be a move that's only used by distraught beginners in modern shoot grappling, but  in the hands of Verne Gagne it looked like a potential match ender if the opponent hung around in it for too long. Because so many guys from that era were trained as actual shooters, they knew how to make everything, even something like a headlock, look painful and potentially injurious if applied properly. The guy taking the hold couldn't just hang around in it and would have constantly struggling for ways to ease things or escape.


This issue with hanging around in holds is very prominent among the 80's guys who seemed disinterested in learning proper matwork, and even a pimped guy like Bob Backlund has been pretty disappointing to me in that respect. Sitting around for minutes in holds making faces and occasionally doing a cool counter or escape does not great mat work make. As someone who's also not a fan of tricked out and cooperative looking lucha submissions that leave me wondering half the time how it's even supposed to hurt, I'm starting to feel the legacy of the 80's is a world where, outside of the basically dead shoot style, the best place for good mat work is actual shoots like freestyle wrestling and submission grappling.


The 80's style of working over a body part to set-up a submission seems to often be treated as the norm and the puro style of instant tap-outs to properly applied submissions but otherwise fighting through the pain viewed as a corruption due to MMA influence, but I'd argue otherwise. In a shoot, the only two modes of selling seen are either none at all or seriously injured without much middle ground between the two extremes because, generally speaking, by the time the pain has even registered to the extent that you're wincing some serious damage has already been done. This is the style of selling seen in the Shikat/Londos 1930 title match. Londos doesn't have to work over a body part; he just catches Shikat in a leg lock late in the match and things don't last much longer when it becomes clear Shikat's knee is hurt.


The deal with having someone spend half the match working over a body part and then the person getting worked over spending the other half of the match selling that body part (in theory, anyway, but someone no-selling body work on offense is one of the most common complaints I see) strikes me as something that become prominent as part of the kayfabe era with trying to make things more accessible for people who didn't know what a real fight looked like or what those holds could actually do. A world where a single hold could potentially decide the outcome of a match is far more exciting to me than one where someone has to spend 10 minutes working over a single body part and the best you can hope for is it makes them harder to do a move down the stretch. 


I saw GOTNW say in another thread that he thinks Buddy Rogers imitators ruined American wrestling, but I think it would be more accurate to say Gorgeous George imitators ruined it as he was the guy who made a name for himself with the over-the-top selling and blatant fouling that became the norm for heels from around the 70's onward. There are several factors for why I think George succeeded where most of the guys followed him failed, one of them being that the over-the-top aspects of his ring work were warranted by his flamboyant gimmick instead of being something every heel back then did. More importantly, though, a big part what makes him interesting to watch even today is that the guy was actually very capable on the mat when he needed to be and, thus, didn't need to build his entirely matches around bumping, stooging, and heeling like his imitators did. I'd almost call the 80's heels aping George's heel spots but not the other stuff that made it work the 80's version of 00's workers aping AJPW near falls but not the other things that made them work.


Buddy Rogers's line about 80's wrestlers insulting the audience's intelligence is exactly how I feel when I watch the cartoony face-heel spots that become en vogue during that time period. George may not have been the only 50's worker cheating, but someone far more representative of heels from that period and who I'd argue as a far better example for most to follow would be Hans Schmidt. Though working an obvious race baiting gimmick, his working style was simply that of a vicious badass doing what he needed to do to win the match. Unfortunately, the archetype of the vicious heel seemed mostly phased out in the 80's in favor of the bitch heel. The main guys carrying that on were guys like Vader and Hansen who had extensively worked Japan, and even they had to tone things down a little for stateside matches.


Similarly, the 80's also saw the crafty champ in Thesz phased out in favor of the bitch heel champ in Race and Flair. Thesz might have heeled it up on occasion and tried to put over the skills of his opponent, but it was nowhere near to the extent that I'd call him a prototypical Flair as I've seen him characterized. He was a guy who, even in selling, never looked like the match was totally out of his control or that he was outmatched like I've often seen from Flair, and didn't rely on fouling nearly as much. The NWA champs of the 50's didn't forget to show themselves as being just as capable as their opponents and, partly due to that, stuff like Thesz/Gagne and Carpentier/Gagne reaches far greater heights of emotion and drama than any of that banana peel shit I've seen from the 80's. This is another case where Rogers's line about insulting the audience's intelligence is applicable as I've seen Race show himself as being really good in a role of a crafty champ in AJPW yet he felt the need to dumb things down into working as a bitch champ for US audiences.


I don't mean to completely shit on 80's stuff as I won't deny there were some great matches back then, including the Slaughter/Sheik bootcamp match mentioned in the quoted text, but my general feeling with US matches from that era is that they succeeded in spite of their environment rather than because of it. As someone who tends more towards watching Japanese wrestling because it's based more on real sports, I also find it unfortunate that US wrestling started similarly before going down a different path. A lot of the differences between modern Japanese and modern US stuff has often been chalked up to overall cultural differences, but as I watch more old stuff I'm starting to feel many of those differences are simply rooted in the Japanese promotions having more respect for wrestling history.

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