Stand Back! That Egg Is Ready to Blow!
It was Thanksgiving Night, and fans were pouring into the Hartford Civic Arena. Some had driven for hours, trading turkey dinner with Grandma for some slop at a roadside greasy spoon, just to be there. After all, they had been waiting for months for this one. There was no way they would pass up this opportunity.
The event was Survivor Series, one of the four biggest shows the World Wrestling Federation would present all year.
There were fans of the immortal Hulk Hogan, longing to see their hero tangle with the vile Earthquake. Others came to watch Jake Roberts get his hands on "The Model" Rick Martel, who had blinded Jake weeks earlier. And then there were those who came solely to witness the Ultimate Warrior run down the aisle and obliterate every opponent in sight.
While each fan had his or her own favorite wrestler, everyone was excited about one thing. Tonight was the night, finally, that they would get to see what was inside that egg.
Yes, the egg. But this wasn't just any old giant egg. This was a mysterious giant egg. For months the WWF had carted the egg around to every arena it visited, and announcers had hyped that it would hatch on Thanksgiving Night. No one in the audience knew what significance the egg actually had. After all, what the heck did an egg have to do with pro wrestling? Whatever it was, it must have been important, or the WWF wouldn't have spent so much time hyping it. What could be inside that giant egg?
While the promotion was keeping its lips sealed, fans had their own ideas. Maybe it would be a new wrestler making his debut. Perhaps a bodybuilder, signifying the launch of the WWF's new sister company, the World Bodybuilding Federation. Could it be a celebrity of some sort? After all, the promotion had used everyone from Liberace to Bob Uecker to drum up attention in the past.
Whatever it was, there were only two ways those fans would be able to find out: be there live and in person, or cough up the $24.95 to watch it on cable.
Over 10,000 fans showed up in Hartford on that fateful evening, with hundreds of thousands more watching from the comfort of their own homes. Throughout the night, various shots of the egg were shown as the matches took place. Speculation was running rampant. What the hell could it be?
Finally, the moment of truth arrived. Announcers Gorilla Monsoon and Roddy Piper handed the telecast over to "Mean Gene" Okerlund, who was eggside. "This cracks me up," Okerlund lamely joked, as he hyped one last time what might be inside the egg. Could it be a dinosaur? Balloons? Maybe the Playmate of the Month?
Finally, the moment everyone had waited for had arrived.
"Stand back! Stand back! That egg is ready to blow!" Out from the egg it came!
It was ... it was ... a turkey?
A guy dressed up as a turkey?
Fans sat in stunned silence as Okerlund continued a hype job worthy of P.T. Barnum.
"Take a look at him, ladies and gentlemen! He's got feathers, a beak, and a little rooster tail up on top! Look at the feet on this thing!"
The bird hopped down to Okerlund.
It spoke: "Gobbledy gobbledy!!"
Okerlund looked amazed. "What's with the gobbledy?"
"Gobbledy gobbledy!" it replied.
"Gobbledy gobbledy?" Okerlund asked. "Don't tell me you're the Gobbledy Gooker!"
The feathered man nodded excitedly, his Wiffle ball eyes nearly falling off his costumed head.
Suddenly, a rock & roll version of "Turkey in the Straw" began to blare over the loudspeakers. The feathered creature dragged Okerlund to the ring as the TV commentators wondered aloud what was going to happen next. The bird hopped over the top rope and motioned for Mean Gene to follow. Reluctantly, Okerlund entered the ring. A smattering of boos began to emanate from the crowd, but that fact seemed lost on Piper. "The kids are going nuts!" he exclaimed. "They love him!" Meanwhile, a teenager in the crowd flipped the bird the bird.
The Gooker began to flap his arms and shuffle about. He hooked Okerlund's arm and the two performed the world's most bizarre square dance. Gene did the best jig his fiftysomething-year-old body could man-age, as the turkey man started bouncing off the ropes, his journey culminating in a backflip. He motioned for Okerlund to do the same. Gene ran from rope to rope, then fell flat on his face.
The scattered boos grew to a mammoth roar of disapproval as the skit entered its seventh minute.
"They didn't know what to make of him at first, but I think he's won the heart of Hartford!" Piper theorized.
"He sure has!" Monsoon agreed. "Gobbledy Gooker, a big smash here at Survivor Series!"
The boos became deafening as the Gooker left the arena, thousands of voices joining together to let the WWF know how much they hated what they had just seen. For those fans, both in the arena and at home, had just been forced to endure ten minutes of WrestleCrap.
* * *
Professional wrestling is a huge business. According to its fourth-quarter fiscal report, the World Wrestling Federation grossed $456 million in 2001.
As impressive as that amount might be, it is also an important reminder that pro wrestling is a business. Period. It isn't an athletic contest, nor is it about entertaining fans. It is all about one thing, and that's making money. Please keep this in mind as you read this book. Because as hard as it may be to believe, all the events, all the characters, everything presented here actually happened. What's even more unbelievable is that it all happened because someone, for God knows what reason, thought it would make money. Yes, someone, somewhere, actually believed that the Gobbeldy Gooker would make fans at home open up their wallets and head to the arenas.
It isn't my intention to mock those who have portrayed the characters or performed in the skits that I describe in this book. The fact of the matter is, I'm a lifelong wrestling fan, and the last thing I want to do is ridicule the men and women who have been asked to perform some of the ridiculous antics presented to them by the writers. In fact, these wrestlers likely had little say in the matter. Refusal to do as they'd been told would have been rewarded with a trip to the unemployment office.
The people that came up with the ideas, though, are fair game.
And who exactly is that? In wrestling, this person is known as the booker. Sometimes, if more than one person is involved, they are given other titles, such as the creative department or the booking team. It is their duty to create gimmicks, or characters, for the wrestlers. They are also in charge of writing angles, or story lines, that perpetuate rivalries, or feuds, between the wrestlers.
Within the wrestling community, the men and women who slam one another to the mat in the ring aren't called "wrestlers" at all; they're workers. Like your average Joe Sixpack at a construction site, if a guy wrestles hard and is entertaining, he is known as a "good worker." Conversely, a guy who mails it in and puts fans to sleep is known as a "bad worker."
Workers are traditionally defined by their moral alignment. A good guy in wrestling is known as a babyface, or face for short. The bad guy who attacks his opponent before the opening bell and laughs in a manner most vile? That would be the heel. A good face can make the crowd pop, or react positively to his antics in the ring. A good heel can generate heat, which means that the fans will boo every move he makes, and they will get into his match every bit as much as they do for the most popular of faces. If a heel is good enough at getting heat, then fans, or marks, will pay to see him get his comeuppance.
The goal of any wrestling company, as I've already pointed out, is to make money. Wrestling companies, or promotions, do this in various ways, but all of them involve convincing fans to sink time and money into their product. It is therefore the responsibility of the company to convince fans to buy tickets to events, watch TV shows, and buy payper-view events; hence the term promotion. First the company promotes the event itself, convincing fans to buy tickets to the show. Then, once they're in the door, these fans will also purchase merchandise, such as T-shirts and hats, that will fatten the company's (and often the performers') pocketbooks. This happens every night in cities across North America, where wrestling promotions large and small present nontelevised live events.
But you don't have to be at a live event to add your money to a promotion's coffers. Payper-views (PPVs for short) are special events that fans pay their local cable company to watch. The higher the buy rate, the more money the wrestling promotion makes. These are generally the biggest moneymakers a national promotion has; it is not inconceivable for a wrest-ling company to make several million dollars in one night by promoting a PPV event. Pay-per-view events are doubly lucrative; the promotion takes in revenue not only from the cable buys, but also from the increased seat sales possible at such events, which are generally presented in larger arenas, often with capacity crowds. Wrestlemania III, for example, took place in the Pontiac Silverdome before a crowd of 78,000 fans. (A number the WWF inflated to 93,000 because they believed that 78,000 wasn't impressive enough. Welcome to the hyperbole-driven world of pro wrestling.) Add in the cable buys and any merchandise fans may have bought, and it's easy to see why it is of utmost importance that these events be promoted well.
Of course, there are always the various regular wrestling programs on television as well. Just like any other television show, they are deemed a success or failure based on their ratings. The more people who watch the show, the more the television network can charge companies for the advertising time they buy. When ratings are high, wrestling companies make a lot of money. When ratings are low, however, they face the same issues other shows face, such as low advertising rates or cancellation. It may be
wrestling, but to the networks, it's more or less the same as any other program they air. So, in order to thrive - and even to survive - wrestling promotions have to do everything they can to attract fans and hold on to them.
Often, in the quest to create something wrestling fans want to see, the promotion will make a serious error in judgment. When this happens, whether it be in the form of a character fans find ridiculous or a story line that has more holes than Swiss cheese, a promotion has created what I refer to as "WrestleCrap."
WrestleCrap has quite literally destroyed men's lives. It has caused gigantic, multimillion-dollar companies to perish. But more than anything, it has caused millions of innocent viewers to shake their heads and wonder, "Who in the hell thought this was a good idea?"
If you are a wrestling fan, this book will likely remind you of characters that that you thought - or hoped - were just a bad dream. And for those of you who know nothing about the wrestling business, don't fret.
After all, stupidity is a universal language.CHAPTER 2
The Circus Comes to Town
Despite what many of its detractors might have you believe, the World Wrestling Federation did not invent WrestleCrap. Bizarre characters and story lines have been prevalent since the early days of the business.
It wasn't until the advent of television, however, that the first wildly successful "gimmick" came to be. As the medium began to gain public acceptance in the 1950s, networks were in need of cheap programming. Pro wrestling fit the bill, with the added bonus of drawing generally high ratings. It was a match made in heaven.
About this time, a thirty-five-year-old man by the name of George Wagner appeared on the scene. Unlike other wrestlers of the era, who would come to the ring wearing black tights and boots, Wagner would appear wearing long, flowing robes and curlers in his bleached blond hair. His demeanor was most peculiar; he was as prissy as humanly possible. Before he would even think about entering the ring, he would instruct his valet to spray the area with perfume. After all, the last thing he wanted was to reek like his opponent.
He was dubbed "Gorgeous" George by announcers, and he is generally regarded as the first man in pro wrestling history to play up showmanship over athleticism. Fans ate it up they couldn't wait to see this pantywaist get clobbered. George, playing the heel, would use every illegal tactic he could to defeat his opponents. The more he cheated, the more people hated him. And the more people hated him, the more they were willing to tune in to see him get what was coming to him.
Although Gorgeous George's gimmick was a success, other ideas weren't quite so well received. Wrestlers were given all manner of oddball personas in hopes that the public would take notice. There were characters based on superheroes, such as Batman. During the late 1960s, a mop-topped wrestler named George Ringo, dubbed the "Wrestling Beatle," would carry a guitar to the ring. Frankensteins, vampires, and werewolves all cavorted about in the ring. There were even various wrestling mummies, wrapped from head to toe in bandages. One of the mummies, in an effort to prove his authenticity, cut his finger in half, causing sand to pour out.
Still, these characters were the exception, not the rule. Most wrestlers continued to compete in standard trunks, allowing their skills inside the squared circle to be their calling card. Men such as Harley Race and Jack Brisco thrilled crowds with their technical prowess, not by dressing up as movie monsters.
These men performed in regional territories throughout the United States. Prior to the early 1980s, there were imaginary boundaries that promoters did not dare cross. Verne Gagne and his American Wrestling Association (AWA) handled the Midwest, specifically the Minneapolis region. The National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) handled the Atlantic seaboard, running huge shows at the Omni in Atlanta on a regular basis. And Vince McMahon Sr.'s World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF) controlled the Northeast, including the crown jewel of all arenas, Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Vincent J. McMahon adhered to the territorial guidelines. He did not run shows in Atlanta, nor did he venture to the Midwest. He did not attempt to hire performers away from other promotions. He believed that there was enough of the wrestling pie for all promoters to gorge themselves on.
Vincent K. McMahon, on the other hand, did not share his father's beliefs. After purchasing the WWWF from his dad and dropping the "Wide" from its name, the younger McMahon had but one thought in mind: to conquer all in his path and create a North American pro wrestling monopoly. He completely ignored the territorial boundaries and ran shows throughout the United States. He also threw boatloads of money at each area's top stars, which bolstered his roster while effectively killing off the rival promotion.
As Vince McMahon examined his roster, he came to the realization that his world champion, a former collegiate wrestling star by the name of Bob Backlund, was too bland to shake things up to the degree necessary to turn the WWF into a national phenomenon. McMahon needed someone who was larger than life. He needed Hulk Hogan.
Hogan, born Terry Bollea, was everything that Backlund wasn't. Backlund made a name for himself in the collegiate wrestling ranks. Hogan made a name for himself starring in Rocky III, opposite Sylvester Stallone. Whereas Backlund was quiet and soft-spoken, Hogan was loud and boisterous. Backlund worked over his opponents with a mat-based attack. Hogan destroyed his opponents with fists and clotheslines. The fact that Hogan couldn't wrestle a lick didn't really matter. The success of Vince's promotion wouldn't be based on the wrestling ability of its workers. Instead, he would rely on a story-driven formula that required the creation and manipulation of all sorts of outrageous characters.
Although McMahon would claim in later years that his predecessors only ran wrestling shows in "smoky bars and bingo parlors," this was not the case. Pro wrestling regularly sold out such venues as Madison Square Garden long before Hulk Hogan took to the national stage. It is true, however, that Vince was able to sell the public on the fact that his product was something the whole family could enjoy, and he began to create a target market based on the preteen demographic.
In order to do this, he made his workers more than just wrestlers. In fact, they were no longer even referred to as "wrestlers." No, his men were "superstars." He wanted his personnel to be more akin to superheroes than the ugly marauders that had been the staple of pro wrestling since its origins. To that end, Hogan's initial name was the "Incredible Hulk" Hogan, borrowed, of course, from a popular Marvel Comics superhero. The WWF had to pay to use the trademarked name, which Vince grudgingly did in order to perpetuate the image that Hogan was more than just a mere mortal wrestler.