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One day last September SI received a letter from Miss Marie Garrison of Oakland, Calif., president of the "Lords of the Mat" fan club. Miss Garrison enclosed a card making SI's publisher an honorary member of her club, which is pledged to root for and admire "Lord" Athol Lay-ton, the peerless Captain Leslie Holmes and "Lord" James Blears (opposite, lower left). Miss Garrison also had a question: what, she wondered, was SI going to do about professional wrestling? Since then the question has been asked again and again by other interested parties.
Here and on the following pages is SI's answer. As Mark Kauffman's color photographs make clear, America's 5 to 10 million television wrestling fans are missing a lot. To really understand a man like Kubla Khan it is necessary to see with one's own eyes that he not only wears harem pants but that they are purple.
All wrestling (which has been described as all gall) is divided into two parts: heroism and villainy. This is not an accident. It was discovered long ago that a contest between two clean-cut young athletes generates less emotion in the spectator than a struggle between one clean-cut athlete and one dirty-cut athlete. Of the approximately 3,800 wrestlers who populate the 335 arenas in the U.S., one-half are clean-cut and the other half are dirty-cut.
The same thing is true of the champions. Right now, for example, there are six "undisputed" heavyweight champions of the world, the newest being Leo Nomellini, a young man normally employed as a football player. Mr. Nomellini claims to have won the title in San Francisco a week or so ago when Mr. Lou Thesz misbehaved and was disqualified. The National Wrestling Alliance, a marching and chowderhead society of the nation's 38 leading wrestling promoters, says the title cannot change hands on a disqualification. The Messrs. Vern Gagne, Hans Schmidt, Antonino Rocca and Pat O'Connor say jointly that the dispute is academic since each of them is the world's champion, anyway.
There is little prospect that the situation ever will be resolved, for the simple reason that six champions can make more money than one. Four of the claimants are under contract to a single promoter, Fred Kohler of Chicago. Gagne, a hero, makes about $100,000 a year; Rocca, also a hero, makes as much or more; Schmidt, a villain, makes about $75,000; and O'Connor, a rising hero, is hot on Schmidt's heels. Mr. Kohler has no trouble keeping his four champs busy; besides Chicago's Marigold Gardens, which drew 144,731 fans last year, Kohler books matches in 90 cities in Illinois, 22 in Wisconsin, 13 in Indiana, and he occasionally exchanges wrestlers with promoters like Morris Sigel in Houston or Hugh Nichols on the West Coast.
Although journeyman wrestlers have always worked five or six nights a week, until the advent of TV few of them made really big money. Prior to World War I wrestling was a pretty prosaic business, with only one champion instead of six and hardly any lords, counts, princes or Masked Marvels. Frank Gotch was the champion from 1906 to 1913 and a contemporary account of a title match between Gotch and George Hackenschmidt in 1908 notes that "one hour after the start nothing approaching a hold had been gained by either man."
No modern wrestling fan would wait a solid hour for Hold No. 1, and neither would any TV director. Luckily, a fellow named Gus Sonnenberg came along in the late 20s and opened up the game. Gus had been a mighty linesman at Dartmouth and he was a ferocious tackier. He couldn't hit a moving target, but an enterprising promoter convinced a number of wrestlers that they could all make money by standing still and letting Sonnenberg tackle them. They did, he did and they all did.
Out of this cooperative enterprise came many of the holds which so delight televiewers today. Some of them—the airplane spin, the surfboard and the drop kick, to name three—can only be applied with the skilled complicity of one's opponent. One, the Indian death lock, is so complex that the assistance of the referee is sometimes required.
There is some argument as to how Frank Gotch would make out with the modern crop of TV wrestlers. A few experts believe he could beat them all in one night; others think it would take two. Actually, the argument is beside the point. Professional wrestling, circa 1955, owes only a slight debt to Gotch and Hackenschmidt and not much more to the amateurs. Its true forebear is the morality play (pages 38-40), and its true concern is not with athletics but with good, evil and gate receipts. The curtain is about to go up. Turn the page and watch the plot unfold. P. S. You may hiss the villain.
IN BAD COMPANY