Muchnick Book Bonus – ‘The (Thwak!) Deregulation of (Thump!) Pro Wrestling (The Bureaucrats Behind Hulk Hogan)’

Originally published in The Washington Monthly, June 1988. Reprinted as Chapter 3 of Wrestling Babylon: Piledriving Tales of Drugs, Sex, Death, and Scandal (ECW Press, 2007). Copyright 1988, 2007 by Irvin Muchnick.

WAHOO McDANIEL’S INDIAN-STRAP MATCH against Gorgeous Jimmy Garvin started out as just another day at the office. When he was supposed to bleed (or, as they say in the business, “juice”), Wahoo slipped a razor blade out from under his wrist band. Then, while Gorgeous Jimmy and his valet, Precious, distracted the crowd by arguing with the referee, Wahoo nicked a clump of scar tissue near his own scalp. His brow gushed copiously, and the ten thousand fans at Veterans Stadium popped with excitement.

Wahoo had juiced himself dozens, maybe hundreds of times in his career, but never with such portentous consequences as at the Great American Bash in Philadelphia in July 1986. This time a piece of razor blade got lost in the gnarls of his scar tissue, where it stuck like a golf cleat to a wad of chewing gum. Wahoo, formerly a punishing linebacker in the old American Football League, worked the rest of the bout with the blade in his noggin. When he returned to the dressing room, the chairman of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission, James J. Binns, saw the mess at close range. Binns ruled that there would be no more juice at the Great American Bash, or ever again in his jurisdiction. “Some of these guys have foreheads that look like raised atlas maps,” Binns later told The Philadelphia Inquirer.

For Virgil Runnels (better known to wrestling fans as Dusty Rhodes, the American Dream), the commissioner’s edict was worse than a whack with archrival Ric Flair’s gold championship belt. Rhodes is chief booker for the National Wrestling Alliance. While the World Wrestling Federation may sell itself as family entertainment, Dusty’s minions appeal to the hard core.

Infuriated by Binns, Dusty Rhodes nevertheless took a back seat to his tag-team partners: the lawyers. Eighteen months later, after intense lobbying by the industry and a critical report by an audit committee of the state legislature, the American Dream won. The Pennsylvania House of Representatives voted to put the athletic commission in a permanent sleeperhold, thereby removing any bureaucratic impediments to razor blades. The state senate is expected to follow suit. Commissioner Binns has resigned. Pennsylvania thus seems poised to join Connecticut and Delaware as states that have deregulated wrestling in the past five years and swelled to 19 the ranks of the states in which the sport is unsupervised. Of course, in some states that might be an improvement. As wrestling spins and kicks its way into a $300 million a year business, state governments have created a bizarre regulatory maze that omits the rules most needed and erects ones where none are needed at all. But when it’s the industry versus the regulators, it’s usually the regulators that go down for the count.

***

YOU’RE PROBABLY WONDERING if pro wrestling is a true competition. No, Virginia, it is not. Its action, though dangerous and often surprisingly spontaneous, is choreographed. The matches themselves are a kind of brutal ballet in which the performers improvise the “spots, communicating through whispers and body language to create the illusion of violent combat until the scripted finish. Promoters call the shots, usually through backstage agents, who decide who gets pushed and who generally ensure that the feuds circulate with all the freshness of “Dallas” subplots.

The first pro wrestling exhibitions in America were run out of carnival tents in the nineteenth century. The sport spread to cities in the 1920s, becoming a sensation on television in the late forties and fifties with shows like “All-Star Wrestling” on the old DuMont network.

Even then, regulators were having trouble keeping the sport under control. Fortunately, riots haven’t been a serious problem in New York since Antonino Rocca sparked a brawl at the old Madison Square Garden in 1957. An estimated 500 fans joined in that fray, which left two cops and several bystanders injured and 200 chairs broken. Prodded by a vigilant commission, the chastened promoters thereafter instituted the practice of blaring “The Star-Spangled Banner” over the public-address system at the conclusion of every controversial Rocca bout. While the partisans stood neutralized, security forces would spirit the bad guys out of harm’s way.

One of those villains, Dick the Bruiser, kept getting into so many fracases in New York State that in his words, “I was suspended longer than the Brooklyn Bridge.” Years later, when I asked the Bruiser how he managed to get himself reinstated, he winked and replied, “I called my mother.” Dick the Bruiser’s mother happened to be Indiana’s Democratic National Committeewoman, Margaret Afflis Thompson.

Pro wrestling went into orbit in the brave new world of video. The current Barnum of Bounce is third-generation promoter Vince McMahon, hypemeister and head of the Connecticut-based World Wrestling Federation. He looks like Alfalfa from “The Little Rascals” might have had he pumped iron. He’s also a marketing genius. Today the WWF generates more revenue from such sources as pay-per-view cable television (where viewers dole out cash for each show) as well as videocassettes, kids’ dolls, and T-shirts, than it does from live ticket sales. Since the company is privately held it has not released its revenues. Its haul has been estimated at around $150 million a year.

In most states boxing and wrestling have been lumped together in a peculiar regulatory scheme. The favored term, “athletic commission,” overstates its purview. (More accurate is the name of Washington D.C.’s Boxing and Wrestling Commission — whose chairwoman, Cora Wilds, incidentally, resigned last year after reports of her doublebilling of expenses.) Across the country commissions range from independent, governor-appointed supervisory panels to the cobwebbed corners of departments of state or labor or consumer affairs.

The commissions’ promotion of safety standards for boxing is heavily subsidized by rasslin’. In New York, for example, wrestling generated $302,262 in 1987 — almost three times as much as boxing. Even in California, where boxing events are staged more often than any other state, wrestling revenues last year brought in more than double those of the sweet science ($271,806 to $122,292) through a 5 percent tax on gate receipts.

Beyond tax collection, the standard justification for wrestling regulation comes from people like Marvin Kohn, deputy commissioner of the New York State Athletic Commission. Kohn argues that promoters have always wanted a government superstructure because “we lend credibility to their product.”

In New York State, credibility seethes from part 225 of the athletic commission’s rules. In Section 225.2 there’s the concession that we’re dealing with “exhibitions only.” On the other hand, Section 225.11 asserts, that’s no excuse for “unfair or foul tactics” such as “striking, scratching, gouging, butting, or unnecessarily punitive strangleholds.” (Necessarily punitive strangleholds will always have their place.) Miscreants are cautioned that “unsportsmanlike or physically dangerous conduct or tactics” can result in disqualification. And let’s not forget proper ring attire: fans of Kimala, the Ugandan Headhunter, and of Brutus (The Barber) Beefcake can sleep soundly knowing that the type and color of their trunks were approved by the commission, in accordance with Section 225.19.

The commission is charged with protecting the health and safety of its participants but doesn’t neglect the financial protection of various hangerson.Take Jose Torres, the $68,000-a-year chairman, ex-light heavyweight boxing champ and Norman Mailer’s pre-Jack Abbott literary protege. In New York, no wrestling takes place without the presence of ring inspectors, who get $39 per event and are responsible, among other things, for making sure the corner turnbuckle pads are securely in place. Their service is greatly appreciated by George (The Animal) Steele, who as part of his act frequently lunches on them both during and after his bouts.

The Animal, a former Detroit high school teacher with a heart irregularity, is more leery of the official commission doctor, who checks the blood pressure of all wrestlers before they perform. A 1985 show at the Nassau Coliseum featured a steel-cage match between Captain Lou Albano, then 52 and grotesquely obese, and Classy Fred Blassie, the Hollywood Fashion Plate, then 69 and with an artificial hip that forced him to walk with the aid of a cane. Thanks to the attending physician, we have it on good authority that Albano’s and Blassie’s diastolic readings passed muster.

***

OTHER STATES SET an equally inspiring example. In Maryland, wrestling promoters must set aside two ringside rows at every show for commission officials. In Missouri, the most heated issue is a ban against jumping off the top rope; to say the least, this prohibition cramps the style of Jimmy (Superfly) Snuka, the acrobatic Polynesian whose coup de grace consists of diving onto his supine victim. In Oregon, they recently banned the blade; now when Portland fans clamor for blood, wrestlers simply do it “the hard way,” grinding a knuckle into each other’s foreheads or rubbing against ropes or ring posts.

In New Mexico, the blood-pressure tests are always a hassle because of the high altitude and spicy Mexican food. The big, wasted black man who bills himself as The Junk Yard Dog once flunked half a dozen times in Albuquerque before finally getting his pressure down to an acceptable level. Meanwhile, the show was juggled so JYD could go on later–making this the only known case of a wrestler’s being switched from the semi-main to the main event because of concerns over his health.

In Pennsylvania, the Byzantium of wrestling regulation, the buckets of red blood are matched by rolls of red tape. Long before the Wahoo McDaniel contretemps, the World Wrestling Federation complained about an official ringside commission table, which always had to be covered with a white tablecloth. The table’s sharp corners threaten to cause far more injuries than the cushioned mats that WWF wrestlers collapse on when they’re tossed outside the ring. But if the commission folds, as is expected, so might the table.

In 1972 an overeager commissioner named Joe Cimino ordered the strict enforcement of all amateur-style rules. At a Pittsburgh show, his referee dutifully set about disqualifying wrestlers left and right for fake punches, hair-pulling, and use of the ropes; an hour’s worth of scheduled matches lasted a mere 22 minutes. Since the show was being shot live for TV, this left 38 minutes, but those watching at home got a treat: an unrehearsed, honest-to-God, on-camera shouting match between Cimino and wrestler Bruno Sammartino.

So when the Pennsylvania athletic commission came up for review last year under a 1981 sunset bill, the wrestling community was only too eager to air its complaints. As it turned out, however, some of the best dirt came from people within the commission itself. The audit committee learned of turf battles between the executive director, a full-time staff official, and the commissioners, who were paid on a per diem basis to attend meetings and events but tried to direct the day-to-day operations. Further blurring the flow charts was a confusing district system, which had different commissioners enforcing different guidelines in each section of the state.

The auditors didn’t go so far as to recommend abolishing the commission — only cutting the numbers of deputies and trimming its authority. But once their report reached the legislature, the World Wrestling Federation’s savvy lobbyists pulled the levers on the fate of the beleaguered agency as expertly as Macho Man Savage throws a flying elbow. At a September 1987 show in Hershey, they handed out complimentary tickets, hors d’oeuvres, beer, and soda to the chairman of the state house Government Committee and more than 20 staff members of the Governor’s Office of Legislative Affairs and the Department of State. Three months later the vote flattened the commission.

But it was the legislation’s fine print that really rang the bell: not only was the state wrestling tax reduced from 5 percent to 2 percent, but the surety bond for promoters was raised from $3,000 to $10,000. Dave Meltzer, publisher of the Wrestling Observer, an insider newsletter, notes that this last provision will have the effect of helping major promotions like the WWF and the NWA by shutting out smaller independent operators. “In other words, as usual, Vince McMahon got exactly what he wanted,” Meltzer concludes. You better believe it.

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