I get literally hundreds and hundreds of questions from fans via email, twitter or in person at appearances, generally asking about wrestling in the "old days". In actual fact, most of them begin with "Back in YOUR day", as if I was one of the scouts in the westward expansion of wagon trains back in the 1800's. Of course, when the question is then asked, it makes me feel like I WAS, because the sport has changed so much in the last 20 or 30 years. One of the questions that's been popping up lately is some variation of, "Back in your day, how did you rehearse/practice/go over the moves of the match and the finish, and who was it that instructed you who was to win and who was to lose and how?"
When it's asked in person, I guess the look on my face, staring at the questioner like they have a mouthful of steaming turds, speaks volumes to that person about how I feel about the inquiry they've just made. But I've started to realize it's not the fans' fault they think that all wrestling matches have always been prearranged move for move, because most of today's matches ARE. In the era of corporate ownership, publicly traded companies, soap opera and comedy writers and independent wrestlers who go over every single step of a match whether by themselves or under the direction of any number of agents or producers, I guess it's a valid question. We--as in the entire wrestling industry--have brought this on ourselves. So I suppose it's time to address the fact that it wasn't always this way, and talk about how matches came to be in the "before time"--before it all became a rehearsed, choreographed exhibition of tumbling and not a simulated athletic contest.
Today, especially at TV tapings and major events, and definitely in any of the major promotions, wrestlers arrive hours before belltime so they can get in the ring with their opponents and practice moves, go over every step of the match ahead of time, talk with agents and producers who have talked with the "creative writers" who have decided who is to win and how, and make sure that everything is timed down to the second and everyone is so "rehearsed" that there can be no possibility of a moment when no one knows what to do next. That moment usually comes anyway when someone forgets what they've talked over, but I digress. The point is, these little morality plays in a wrestling ring have had all the spontaneity, passion, emotion and improvisation pretty much squeezed out of them by the time they are seen in public. If anyone makes a slight misstep, it's obvious not only from the wrestlers' reactions and facial expressions which scream "Oooops!", but also the fans chanting "You fucked up!" just in case anyone missed it.
The style of the finishes varies from promotion to promotion. In the WWE, the story is the most important thing, and the actual finish of the match, if there even IS one, is often secondary to that. In some of the independents, there is no story to speak of, and the guys just go through a series of jawdropping moves as fast as they can, selling none of them, until they hit the move they have predetermined is the finish and sell that, whether it looks anywhere near as devastating as what has gone before or not. I remember seeing Low Ki actually knock a guy out for real with the first move of the match, getting a huge pop, and then spending the next minute trying to do the rest of the planned match with a dead body until people were laughing. Once, in TNA, the Archbishop of Talentbury, Vince Russo, actually put on the TV show a match which had a finish, but in the way he laid it out, the bout had never actually STARTED. Pressed on this--I wonder by whom--he said "Nobody will notice!"
When I tried to relay it to the talent, that's the first thing they brought up.
Anyway, let's tackle our subject today piece by piece. First of all, as far as "rehearsals" go, I was in wrestling for about 15 years as a photographer, announcer, manager, and even on the booking committee of WCW before I ever actually saw wrestlers get in the ring before the doors opened and "go over" a match or finish. The reasons for this were varied.
To begin with, in the territory days, the "call time", the time that wrestlers were supposed to report to the arena for a show, was one hour before belltime--the same time that the doors of the arena opened to the fans. You might ask a certain wrestler to get there a little earlier to tape a promo or something, but mostly, it was 7PM for an 8PM show. That meant that there was no way we would even SEE the ring before our match, since we couldn't go out in the arena in front of the fans.
If you DID arrive before the doors opened, it didn't matter, as no wrestlers would be able to "practice" in the ring since there were still going to be arena employees, police, security or food vendors milling about. To get in the ring with your opponent, or even a tag partner, to go over anything would expose the business to those people and get you fired before the bell rang for the first match. Besides that, in those days if you had suggested to your opponent that you should "practice" something it would have been taken as an insult to him as a professional. You talked over what you wanted to do, agreed on how it could be done, and did it in the ring.
As well, no fulltime pro was going to take any bumps outside a match being seen by ticket purchasing patrons. For much the same reason that the "one hour before bell" call time was instituted--in any territory, you were driving between 1500 and 3500 miles per week, and often lucky just to MAKE the show--the fulltime talent were taking enough bumps and getting enough "practice" in their matches. Small territories like the Central States ran at least 5 days a week, big territories like Mid-South or Mid-Atlantic often ran multiple shows per night, and main event wrestlers often had 10 matches per week counting weekend matinees and TV tapings. My record in Mid-South in 1984 was working 103 days IN A ROW, some of those two shows per day. Who had time to get there early or the stamina to take more bumps just to practice?
In probably two-thirds of the arenas, especially spot shows or older buildings, the heel and babyface locker rooms were separated, often on opposite sides of the arena. The fans could never be allowed to see opposing sides entering, or leaving, the same locker room. So even when you arrived one hour before bell, you still might never even see your opponent in person until you got in the ring. As guys moved around territories, they often wrestled men they had never met before until they were introduced in the ring. Eddie Gilbert's introductory line to a foe he had never met, when the bell rang and the two men locked up, was "Hi, I'm Eddie Gilbert. Please grab a headlock."
If there WAS a time for "practicing" a big move or finish, it was probably--surprisingly for today's fans--television. Because of the much-maligned and now out-of-fashion "squash match", most of the top stars tried out big or devastating moves on TV in those days. The reason--cold as it may sound--is that the collateral damage on job guys wasn't as costly as knocking one of your fulltime wrestlers out of work for a week or two. The fact that overly-dangerous moves requiring significant unnecessary risk of injury or contrived, overly-choreographed stuff that looked "too pretty" were discouraged or outright forbidden kept the serious injuries requiring surgery to a fraction of today's rate. Even then, if you got a rep for hurting job guys in an over-the-line fashion, most top guys weren't going to want to work with you anyway.
Now there WAS a lot of "practicing" in the locker room. Guys loved to show each other new holds they'd seen in other areas--whether shoot holds or "working" holds--and "friendly" skirmishes on the locker room floor, especially among shooters or guys who thought they were, were a great way to pass the time before your match. Dennis Condrey once got me down on the floor and taught me the "sugar hold" in the locker room in Houma, Louisiana, and dared me to use it on Tommy Rogers of the Fantastics in our six man tag that night. Tommy, selling and not knowing about it beforehand, actually let me get it on and then couldn't get out, which brought half-disguised howls from his partners Bobby Fulton and Hacksaw Duggan. I also was once the only person in the WCW locker room who could teach Allen Iron Eagle how to apply the Indian Deathlock. But I digress again.
In these separate locker room situations, the booker would go to each party, one at a time, and give them the finish he wanted. For a prelim match, the extent of the direction to the heel might be, "Shine him up, get some heat, give him a comeback anytime after ten, and slip him over." That meant the two men should have a competitive match of a little over ten minutes, the babyface should look good, the heel should cheat to gain the advantage and put the babyface in jeopardy, but the babyface would finally turn the tables and win the match with a sudden and exciting move that the heel wasn't expecting--"slipping over" means a close decision. If the booker told someone to "put him over strong with his finish in five", then that person knew they were getting the shit kicked out of them and beaten convincingly with the guy's signature move in five minutes--or less. Then, whoever was winning, or "going over", would send over what the finishing move would be, and that would be that.
It was then up to those wrestlers to go out and have an exciting and somewhat convincing wrestling match. The heel traditionally "called" the match in the ring, and standard instruction to rookie babyfaces was "keep your ears open and your mouth shut". If the babyface was the top star in the area, or the booker, or a widely respected veteran, they might call it, but traditionally it was the job of the heel to call the moves and spots of the match as they went, as well as the comebacks, cutoffs and pace of the contest. The top heels did this by listening to, or as they called it, "feeling", the crowd.
For main events or matches involving "programs"--a series of matches between the same guys--or angles, more instruction was given. If the Midnight Express was challenging the Rock & Roll Express for the World Tag Team Championship in 1986, and he was able to sit all five of us down, I can still hear Dusty Rhodes saying things like this:
"The Rock & Roll hit and jumpstart it--they're hot cause you fucked 'em up on TV last week--ding ding and have your match--JC you're goin' crazy--bing bang fuckin' boom cut Punky (Ricky Morton) off and get some heat on his ass--Punky, maybe sell over to JC for the racket and get some color, the other guys make sure to draw the ref on that--get it right, hit the hot tag to Hoot (Robert Gibson) with Dennis legal--Hoot makes the comeback, break out in a 4 way, ref goes with Hoot and Dennis--Bobby you blind Punky and hold him, JC you come in with the racket--swing, Punky duck, JC you hit Bobby, Punky nails you and then the R&R hit the double dropkick on Dennis 1-2-3. But when the ref gets their arms up, JC hits Ricky with that fuckin' racket, Midnight gloms Hoot, and you guys get some heat until the cavalry hits and the heels bail with no contact--people goin' crazy, we comin' back in 2 weeks with a handicap match with JC in the ring!"
That was the entirety of his direction for the match. But Dusty was a great booker who also hired great talent, like a great coach recruits great players. With those instructions, Dusty gave us his vision of the way the match would unfold and conclude, and reminded us of what we did before and what he had us doing next so we could be in the right frame of mind. But it was up to the individual performer as to how it all was portrayed.
From that narrative, we knew that the match would start with the R&R charging into the ring and attacking us before the bell over how we had wronged them on the previous TV show. The bell would ring, the R&R would be unstoppable and I would be losing my mind. We would finally somehow cheat or doubleteam to take advantage of Ricky, which would be intensified when I busted him open with the racket. When we "got it right"--meaning as a main event we could go however long we wanted based on how the crowd was accepting it--the Midnight would miss one of their big moves, and Ricky would make a Hail Mary "hot tag" to Robert who would clean house. As all four began brawling I would roll in with my racket and swing at Ricky but hit Bobby instead, and eat a punch myself. The R&R would then hit their finish on Dennis for the win. Seeing their hands raised, I would angrily hit Ricky from behind with my racket, Eaton and Condrey would attack them, and we would beat them up until other babyfaces came in and ran us off, but without touching us so as not to ruin any of our heat. I would have been such a pain in the R&R's arses that at the next card in 2 weeks I'll be forced to wrestle them so they can get even with me, so a lot of heat in the match should go on me.
After Dusty's instructions, once again if we were all together, the Midnight might suggest the "heat spot" that would doubleteam Ricky and cut him off for the heat behind the ref's back. The R&R might suggest that we do the double hip toss/double monkey flip spot we "did last week in Greensboro". Ricky might remind me to draw attention away from him right after the racket shot so he could "get his color", or start bleeding, unnoticed. Then everyone would go back to telling jokes, stories, or peeking out the curtain at the matches.
It's a tribute to the skill and experience of the Midnight, the Rock & Roll, and every other pro wrestler that worked in those days under those conditions that they then went out and had the twenty or thirty minute or more classic emotional rollercoasters that the current generation may only have seen on Youtube. It looked more like a struggle then because sometimes, it WAS a struggle, with everything not planned out beforehand and heels often having to shut a green and/or overly aggressive babyface down a little for their own good. If a move didn't come off just right, it was seen by fans as "looking like the opponent was trying to avoid it". No one outright booed anything but an egregious "whiff" being obviously oversold, because there was more of an aura of violence, conflict and lack of cooperation instead of an obvious vibe of wrestling being an exhibition of moves, and the fans' reaction an evaluation of the execution of those moves.
I was lucky enough more than once to witness Ric Flair and Rick Steamboat "talk over their match". These guys were the gold standard of pro wrestling in-ring in 1989, but they had wrestled hundreds of times over the previous decade, and their styles complimented each other perfectly. They were magic together. They literally spent five minutes talking about matches that went up to an hour, and a lot of that was accompanied by Flair's hand gestures and the verbal shorthand both had from years of experience, where it wouldn't make sense to an outsider and I can't really even transcribe it. Flair would say "then you give me the deal" a lot, and it was like they communicated telepathically. They would go to the ring with a finish, a heat spot or two, and a couple of hope spots and call it as it came. Sometimes they had talked beforehand, others they hadn't, but they were all classics. Ric may have gotten into a "routine" with his matches later in his career, but Steamer brought out the best in him.
I mentioned earlier that when locker rooms were separate, the booker had to tell each side the finish separately, as well as be the one to carry the spot suggestions--or sometimes finish negotiations--back to the other side. When the booker was also a babyface wrestler, this presented an especially annoying part of being a heel. The booker couldn't be seen entering your locker room, so you had to get the finishes from the assistant booker or head referee or brother-in-law of the promoter, which often led to confusing interpretations from a third party that may not have the communicative skills of the booker. Little was written down in those days for fear someone outside may find it, at house shows especially it was all verbal communication past a program lineup posted on the locker room wall. You also couldn't plead your case face-to-face if you wanted the finish changed.
There have been cases where the booker used a mini-tape recorder to speak the finishes into and send them to the other side, but that invariably ended whenever the stooge carrying the recorder left it somewhere and everyone paniced it would be listened to and the business exposed. I've mentioned many times that I learned to give finishes in my rookie year when Bill Dundee was booking Tennessee. His finishes were fantastic and intricate but his handwriting was poor, so every Saturday night in Nashville I was the only one who could read the notes he scribbled out from the babyface locker room and sent over to us heels by the referee.
In some cases, the match the guys called in the ring was smoother than the finish they knew beforehand, because they'd gotten it from two different people. And of course an age-old rib in wrestling was to get two guys who both had heat with the office, match them up, and then tell them each they were supposed to win. If something was incredibly intricate, I've been party to meetings where guys would all sneak out into a car in the back of the arena parking lot, or hide behind dumpsters on a dark loading dock to talk without being seen. In the arenas where locker rooms were together backstage, so both sides could talk in the bathrooms or private areas without being seen by fans, oftentimes guys would suggest or bring up spots they wanted or liked to do, or ideas they had, and those would be tried out in the ring that night. If they worked, they might stay--in some form--each time those guys wrestled, now being called on the fly as they'd already done it before.
Since the same matchups in "programs" occurred in the same towns multiple times, and you wrestled in some cities 52 weeks per year, you had to have a lot of different stuff, which meant a lot of shite got called on the fly, or sometimes just got done, especially in the main event matches. But the finish was sacred.
Ricky Morton's father Paul, a longtime referee, gave me this advice after I was a rookie involved in a stinker: "You did the finish. That's the most important thing. Every finish in every match is the start, middle or end of where the booker wants this whole thing to go, and every part is important. So even if it stinks, no matter what, do the finish."
The finish was sacred, and not to be changed. Except when it was.
Ernie Ladd, when he was one of the hottest heels in the business, once changed a finish mid-match. He was facing a young, undercard, ethnic babyface in a market strong with his countrymen. Ernie was a foot taller and 100 pounds heavier, and was supposed to win. He heard the crowd's reaction to the young man, and changed the finish on the fly and put the kid over, then told the booker he was crazy if he didn't let them work a program. He did, and they drew huge houses.
Jerry Jarrett brought Handsome Jimmy Valiant into Memphis as a heel in 1977, just for one show as a name to advertise in a one-night tournament for the Southern Title. Valiant would face Bill Dundee in a semi-final round. When they went into the ring, the finish was a fifteen minute draw, and Dundee winning the coin flip to advance and lose to the eventual winner, who would be the next top heel.
Jarrett saw, and heard, the reaction of the crowd to Valiant, who they had never seen before. He sent word to the referee that Valiant would win the coin flip. And then Valiant won the Title, and became the next top heel, and eventually one of the most iconic wrestling legends in Memphis history.
Dick Murdoch, more than once, pulled a rib in undercard matches with green talent where he was supposed to win, but he would tell them to small package him for a false finish, then cinch up so they couldn't let him go if they tried, and they would pin Dickie against their will for the 3 count. Then he would yell at them in the locker room and ask them where they learned to wrestle, watching them grovel until they realized everyone around them was dying of laughter.
Jerry Lawler was so confident in his mastery of wrestling psychology that more than once, he's gone into the ring without deciding the finish past who the winner would be, and called the finishing sequence on the fly, whether he was winning or putting over a new challenger, based on the crowd reaction--and often the talent level of his opponent. Nick Bockwinkel once called Lawler the best "ring general" he'd worked with, which is almost mind-boggling.
I could go on, but I already have. When you watch the "classics" of the 70's and 80's on the interwebs, and you see the crowd going batshit, remember this: Pro wrestling of the past had a very visceral, emotional appeal. Those crowds were reacting to a struggle between a hero and a villian, not an exhibition of highly-skilled athletes working together. When the finish came, whether it was meant to get someone over, start a feud, continue a program, settle a score, decide a champion or end someone's run, they were all important. But even though they were so important, they weren't overproduced, overpracticed or overcontrolled. I believe some of the genuine, explosive reactions of the crowds back then that everyone notes are due to the improvisational freedom these experienced veterans had, both in how they told the story of their fight and then how the resolution was interpreted. Maybe that's just me.
A lot of wrestling these days has stumbled and fallen across that fine line of "contest" vs. "performance", wrestling vs. sports entertainment, improvisation vs. overpreparation. Seems to me that not only were the injury risks smaller but the crowd reactions were bigger with the previous style. If you tell a young wrestler to tone it down and make it more believable, he thinks you're trying to hold him down. But if I had advice for any young grappler today, I'd tell them to treat their business seriously, and worry less about memorizing a routine, and more about learning to give a crowd what it wants on the fly--whatever that may be these days.
And always nail the finish, because then, even if you sucked, it'll be alright.