Last week 498 people attended the birth of "professional collegiate wrestling" in a high-school gym in Allentown, Pa. The idea was to present 20 ex-college stars, half of them former NCAA champions, in an honest, no-kidding, true-blue tournament. No dwarfs, perfumed locks, tag teams, masked villains or Argentina Rocca dropkicks (in which the kickee stands stock still, jaw extended, for what has got to be a minute). In pro wrestling lingo, the contestants would be "shooting" rather than "working."
A new outfit called the National Wrestling Confederation put on the show and it was a pretty good one, but the gate for the afternoon and evening sessions was only $2,720, just about equal to Bruno Sammartino's daily meal allowance. The NWC dropped around $8,000.
One unforeseen difficulty, according to the promoter, New Yorker Andy Fitch, 33, a former 115-pound NCAA champion at Yale, was that the Pennsylvania trout season opened the day of the tournament and thousands of wrestling fans were ostensibly standing in babbling brooks. But that may have been the least of his problems. Fitch hadn't even been able to get the name he wanted for his organization. "Association" can only be used by nonprofit groups in New York, he was told. "Alliance" and a lot of other catchy words were taken, so he had to settle for "Confederation." Lehigh University and East Stroudsburg State wouldn't let their gyms be used, so Fitch settled for Rockne Hall, Central Catholic High. At least he was in the Lehigh Valley, one of the hotbeds of wrestling in the U.S.
Then came complying with the regulations of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission. Fitch had to put up a $3,000 performance bond, $50 for a promoter's license, $200 for wrestlers' licenses, $75 for referees' licenses and $75 for a commission-approved doctor. The refs and the wrestlers also had to be fingerprinted by the state police.
All this plus prize money, rent, insurance, about $2,700 in transportation, meal money, ticket and program printing and $600 in phone calls pushed the nut up to $11,000.
Then there were the injuries. Doug Blubaugh, a 1960 Olympic champion, got hurt for the first time since winning his gold medal, and the best drawing card was gone. His first replacement hurt an ankle, the second hurt a knee. Ex- NCAA champ Wayne Boyd from Temple University hurt an elbow. Fitch made him the announcer ($15 license fee).
More. "The mail strike caught us the precise day we were about to send out the first big publicity release," said Fitch. "For more than a week we were immobilized, reduced to telephone communication with the wrestlers and coaches, and no communication at all with prospective spectators." He advertised in Lehigh Valley newspapers. The Bethlehem Globe-Times ran the ad at the bottom of a page filled almost entirely with suggested trout-fishing sites.
Henry Littlefield, NWC vice president and an assistant dean at Amherst, was convinced that the Mafia, or whoever was behind phony pro wrestling, would strongly disapprove of the Allentown venture. He decided to call up a Midwest promoter he had once met and ask him to assure the higher-ups that the NWC was out to capture a different sort of audience. It would not be a rival. Much less so, in fact, than the Roller Derby.
"Look, we grossed $40,000 last night," the promoter told Littlefield. "Monday will be slow and we'll gross $20,000. Henry, you don't worry us."
Nevertheless, Andy, Henry and their associates—make that confederates—were convinced that legit pro wrestling using modified college rules had potential. "It's one of the fastest-growing high-school and college sports in the country," said Fitch. "There are more than a quarter of a million participants, all with parents, roommates, friends and girl friends. Many great wrestlers go into coaching as the only way to earn a living from their skills. There is no reason young coaches should not be able to remain active competitors.