Vince McMahon’s departure from WWE has the potential to be one of the largest shifts in the wrestling industry for decades, but what other moments have had such a seismic impact?
From Greco-Roman matches in the Colosseum and strongman contests at carnivals, to multi-billion-dollar companies producing content in the digital age, wrestling in one form or another has been a source of entertainment for centuries.
Wrestling becomes an Olympic sport – ~1912
Tracing its origins to France in the early 19th century, Greco-Roman wrestling started in imitation of the classical depictions of the sport in ancient Greece and Italy. The rules were simple, pin your opponent using holds above the waist only and without using your legs.
Appearing for the first time at the Olympic games over 110 years ago, it was the first display of wrestling on a global level. In Scandinavian countries in particular, wrestling took hold in a big way leading to domination by Swedes and Finns, who won every Olympic title up to 1948 before other countries could break the stranglehold.
Whilst amateur wrestling had been contested for several years prior, with notable early champions such as George Hackenschmidt, the exposure provided through becoming a recognised Olympic sport grew the fan base exponentially in North America.
Formation of the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) – 18th June 1948
Wrestling had taken hold of North America in the late 1800s, with many carnivals hosting exhibition matches – pitting their champions against hapless members of the audience seeking to become the next champion. This challenger was usually a plant paid by the owner of the carnival to make a show but ultimately come up short. Clearly, the promoters of these shows were usually of ill repute and came to be known derogatorily as “Carnies”.
The six largest promoters sought to change this perception and formed the National Wrestling Alliance in June of 1948. The idea was to unite the championships of their regional territories into a single recognised “World’s Champion” of professional wrestling. In turn, this champion would then travel North America taking on challengers from each of the initial six territories. When the time came to decide a new champion, the members would convene a meeting to vote on who should be the next NWA World’s Heavyweight Champion, often based on the impact the wrestler generally has on ticket sales. Orville Brown would become the first recognised NWA World Heavyweight Champion, holding the title for 501 days before dropping the belt to Lou Thesz.
WWF withdraw from the NWA – 1983
Soon after Vincent Kennedy McMahon bought the WWF from his father, his mission first and foremost was to extend their reach from the North Eastern tri-state area and syndicate programming across all of North America. This of course was against the spirit of the National Wrestling Alliance where promoters, for the most part, stuck rigidly to their own territories.
This wasn’t the only deciding factor of course. Even before Vince bought out his father, tension had been growing between WWF and NWA. Just a few years prior, there was a dispute between the NWA and the then-named WWWF over who should be champion. Vince Sr and his right-hand man, Touts Monde were insistent that their man, “Nature Boy” Buddy Rodgers should be champion instead of the NWA’s choice, Lou Thesz. When they were outvoted, they withdrew and declared Buddy Rodgers their World Champion. Things were eventually smoothed over before Vince Jr withdrew the WWF entirely in 1983.
First ever WWF WrestleMania – 31st March 1985
With every penny of WWF’s operating capital on the line, Vince McMahon was determined to put on the biggest wrestling show in history. He wasn’t the first to do nationally distributed Pay Per View of course. Almost two years prior, Jim Crockett Promotions under the guidance of Dusty Rhodes produced the first Starrcade headlined by Flair vs Harley Race in a steel cage.
WWF’s WrestleMania would be vastly different. Deep in the era of “Rock and Wrestling”, Vince sought to bring in the biggest stars of the day with names like, Muhammad Ali, Cindy Lauper and Liberace to produce what was the first sports entertainment extravaganza. The show was a massive success and cemented WWF’s place at the head of the table in North American pro wrestling and began a period of dominance for the Federation that would last more than a decade.
Vince McMahon indicted on steroid distribution charges – ~1992
WWF had long been known as the “Land of the Giants” and although steroid use had long been suspected throughout the 80’s, things came to a head in 1991. Dr George Zahorian had been ringside doctor for the federation with several top WWF talents on his books. He was convicted for steroid distribution and at trial in 1992, Dr Zahorian implicated Vince McMahon and several of his top stars. Vince then shuttered his side project, the World Bodybuilding Federation prior to being indicted himself shortly after.
Whilst Vince was eventually found not guilty, the impact on WWF’s television product was far-reaching. With major stars “taking time off” to cycle off steroids, Vince was forced to turn to his younger talent with more natural physiques to step up to main event level. The likes of Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Undertaker and Scott Hall were handed the ball and they ran with it. Diesel in particular benefited greatly with his tall, natural muscular build and oozing charisma. The slow and theatrical matches of the 80s became fast-paced technical affairs and in turn captured the imaginations of a New Generation of fans, ushering in the new mainstream style of Western wrestling.
WCW Nitro’s debut episode – 4th September 1995
Until mid-1994, WCW had been a distant second to WWF in terms of viewership and star power. Viewed as “Southern ‘Rasslin”, their style was distinct from WWF. They had stars in their own right at the same time with names like Ric Flair and Sting on the roster. That soon changed after Eric Bischoff’s promotion to executive producer.
First on his list was to bring in legendary free agents in Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage which led to a ratings bump, but the numbers were still far short of WWF and the financial losses were ramping up quickly. During a board meeting in July of 1995, the majority shareholder, Ted Turner asked a question off hand: “What do we need to do to catch up to WWF?” Without skipping a beat and, by his own admission without much thought, Bischoff spoke up and said, “We need to go head to head and we need to be live”. Before Eric could even consider the ramifications of what he just proposed, Turner agreed and told him to make it happen.
The first episode of Nitro premiered in the same coveted timeslot as WWF RAW, Monday night at 8pm. Whilst the first episode didn’t immediately win the ratings battle, the proceeding Monday Night Wars would grow the viewership of both promotions with competition driving both to produce the best shows possible.