How Did Professional Wrestling Become Fake?

Ever watched professional wrestling on TV and asked: how did we get here? How did we get to sword wielding Scottish warriors on one channel, and a jungle boy and his dinosaur friend on the other? Love it or hate it, the scripted nature of professional wrestling is a medium unto itself, with few sports like it. Boxing may get accused of being rigged from time to time and mixed martial arts can give us larger than life characters with legitimate skills, but seemingly no other genre of sport intentionally marries drama and its athletes the way professional wrestling does.

While wrestling has been a thing seemingly as long as humans have been humaning, our story today starts in America. Coinciding with the American Civil War, three styles of wrestling became dominant and proved important to the formation of modern pro wrestling. The first was introduced by Irish immigrants and quickly soared in popularity across the country, with a particularly  firm base in New England: Irish Collar and Elbow wrestling. Collar and Elbow wrestling starts in a hold position where opponents grappled the collar and elbow. Unlike a lot of team sports, the barrier of entry to wrestling is easy: all you need are two people and a little space. Irish Collar and Elbow wrestling was popular amongst immigrants for just that reason. Further, matches actually favored smaller wrestlers, so the malnourished small frames of the era found it easy to compete. This style of wrestling was so popular that it was used by the Union during the Civil War to blow off steam and give them a place to settle scores without fighting. Its reign as the most popular style ended in the 1890’s. It has, however, survived in modern pro-wrestling in the lock ups.

The Civil War saw another emerging style: what we call today Greco-Roman. Unlike Collar and Elbow, Greco-Roman favored larger physiques with a higher center of gravity. This style of wrestling focused on the upper half of the body, with most grappling being forbidden below the midsection. Wrestlers with bigger and larger physiques gained popularity over the smaller Collar and Elbow wrestlers, but at a trade off. Greco-Roman matches could last for hours. As a result, its slow pace spelled its end in the early 1900s. As sports writer Joe Jares once said of it, it is “as exciting as watching two sleepy elephants leaning on each other”.

The third style of wrestling was both an import and had American roots. Catch-as-Catch-Can Wrestling, better known as Catch Wrestling had roots in Lancashire wrestling in England. The American style of the sport also had roots in an outlawed American folk style called Rough and Tumble wrestling. Both had a freer set of rules than Collar and Elbow or Greco-Roman which allowed for holds below the belt, and limited strikes. Rough and Tumble was, however, banned because the strikes usually maimed opponents, and most wrestlers in that style had missing eyes as a result. Catch Wrestling was the safer of the two, and more dynamic than Collar and Elbow or Greco-Roman. With its freer move set, it also adapted holds and maneuvers from other styles of grappling including freestyle wrestling, Jiujitsu, and Indian wrestling. Unlike the other styles, catch wrestling was here to stay until the sport became more what it would be today during the 1920s. Modern pro wrestling is still built on a catch wrestling foundation that allows for flashy but harmless moves during the later eras.

Important to the story of the evolution of wrestling from legitimate matches to fixed ones is where people commonly wrestled. Namely, mostly in one of two places: in the city inside bars and theaters, and in the country as part of touring carnivals. Wrestling in cities got the attention of the sports press, and that helped popularize the sport. This helped wrestling become a nationwide phenomenon, and even an international one. Sports press helped broaden the reach by popularizing certain wrestlers, funding championships, promoting matches, and allowing wrestlers to post challenges, called cards.

No bigger luminaries watched wrestling in bars and theaters than Thomas Edison, Theodore Roosevelt, and PT Barnum. All three men did their part to popularize wrestling with Thomas Edison lighting up the venues he frequented with the some of the first electric lights. Theodore Roosevelt promoted wrestling as a way for the nation to stay healthy and was a major enthusiast wrestler himself, often challenging people visiting the whitehouse to matches as we’ve previously covered. Significantly, PT Barnum included wrestling in touring circus and carnival acts.

On this note, if you want to trace when wrestling started becoming “fake” the best place to start is the carnival. Carnivals hosted wrestling competitions between established wrestlers, but also hosted challenges between wrestlers and the public. In these challenges, a wrestler would take on challengers from the audience and if a challenger either won or lasted a certain amount of time in the bout, he was awarded money. The “fakeness” came in during these challenges where a plant would volunteer first and either make the wrestler look weak or lose in such a way that it encouraged the locals to think they can do better.

In any event, boxing and wrestling were quite close at the time, with a shared audience that dipped and bounced based on sports scandals and regulations. The two sports also had more in common thanks to the London ruleset of boxing. Under London rules, boxers did not wear gloves. Unlike boxing of today, boxers did not punch each other in the face, as that would lead to broken fingers. Instead, London rules relied on body shots, and leaned on grappling techniques such as holds and throws to open up an opponent to body shots. Like wrestling, there were no time limits on London rules matches, and they could often go on for hours as well. Boxing saw a reformation with the introduction of Marquis of Queensbury Rules. The new ruleset introduced boxing gloves, time limits, and banned grappling altogether, bringing boxing more in line with the sport we know today. The new rules were published in 1867, but were not widely accepted in America until around 1889. The introduction of the new rules divorced wrestling and boxing for good, though also ultimately saw  time limits added to wrestling.

While reactions were mixed, some fans were not pleased and were worried new time limits would open wrestling up to more opportunities for hippodroming or “fixing”. Beyond gambling incentives, if you fix a match for a predetermined winner, or fix the match for a certain finish, the crowd can potentially be better entertained if done well, and thus more enticed to come back for further matches. Rematches were big money at the time and could double or even triple the gates of the first bout.

On this entertainment value, the new time limits came at the right time because the emerging catch wrestling was faster and more action packed than Greco-Roman. Catch wrestling also focused on submission holds that were considered more dangerous by the older Greco-Roman wrestlers. A new generation of catch wrestlers who specialized in these new hooks emerged, and none was bigger in America than Frank Gotch, a the poster boy for the new style and who would ultimately help popularize the sport to a level it had never been before, including at one point from 1908 to 1913 reigning as the World Heavyweight Wrestling Champion, still one of the top ten longest streaks for that in wrestling history.

Of course, having one person dominate the sport so fully for so long can be a double edged sword, both bringing fans in from their mastery, while also making things become a little boring when they simply win match after match with no one really able to compete at their level. In short, if one person dominates too long, matches are eventually not as exciting with the outcome predictable.

Fresh, competitive,  talent was important to building up the sport, and oftentimes enough talent couldn’t be cultivated fast enough to take on a dominant champ. This happened with the likes of such legends as Bill Muldoon, Frank Gotch, Gotch’s European rival George Hackenschmidt, and many other champions.

And so it was that starting in the 1920’s we enter the “worked” era. At this time, promotors took control of the industry by controlling the booking of wrestlers and champions. Promoters had ties to the carnivals and adopted many of the insider terms and methods used in carnival wrestling. Most noteworthy to the topic at hand, they took the idea of hippodroming and elevated it on a national level. Wrestlers like Toots Mondt, and managers like Billy Sandow helped design and spread a way of catch wrestling that is staged or “worked” to make matches more exciting. Sandow used wrestlers like Mondt, and Ed “Strangler” Lewis to bring other wrestlers to heel into this new vision of wrestling both in the ring, and in the business practices that would define the era. By controlling the bookings of champions, they controlled the titles and kept them in territories they controlled as part of a trust. Rivals within the trust usually schemed to take control of the whole trust or break it completely. We also get in this period the first independent wrestlers who operated outside the control of the trust and resisted the trust’s influence but were targeted by enforcers like Mondt and Lewis. The trust was based in the Midwest under what is known as the Gold Dust Trio made up of Billy Sandow, Toots Mondt, and Ed “Strangler” Lewis who were often at war with other promoters like Jack Curley in New York, and Jack Pfefer who also had a major part to play in the development of worked wrestling, especially in how wrestling was promoted.

The rise of promoters not only previewed the business model of a wrestling promotion like we will have in the TV era, but also the ways in which the power in wrestling shifted away from wrestlers, and to the promoters. Promoters would eventually settle into territories with their own championships. In so doing, they could now dictate terms like who wins and loses matches, who is recruited into the business, and “gimmicks”, or personas that wrestlers take up.

While “gimmicks” were not explicitly part of the business from early on, characters and costumes played up by wrestlers eventually paved the way for the idea. Wrestlers like Muldoon and Gotch always had a foot in theater, and a lot of the famous wrestlers up to this point had acting backgrounds in theater and film. In the beginning of the worked era, the closest thing to gimmicks were ethnic backgrounds invented for wrestlers to endear them to a specific locale. For example, if the match was held in a Jewish neighborhood, the good guy, or babyface, would be played up as Jewish, even if the wrestler was not. Foreign wrestlers would play on their foreignness, even before the worked era with many Eastern Europeans and Middle Easterners adopting titles such as Terrible Turk, or Japanese wrestlers leaning on techniques derived from Sumo and Jiujitsu. The sports press played into rallying locals against foreign wrestlers or establishing rivalries between local heroes and foreign outsiders. In the worked era, gimmicks controlled by the promoters took precedence, and was a further layer of control promoters had over their wrestlers, a factor that rings true today.

With the worked era, the concept of “heel” and “babyface” were also introduced to clearly show audiences who they were supposed to boo and who they were supposed to cheer. Younger fresh faced and clean cut wrestlers were usually babyfaces, and old and disfigured wrestlers played heels.

Another trend familiar with wrestling fans is a struggle between shifting the emphasis more on entertainment over skill. On this note, as American football started gaining popularity and football stars started to emerge, as football players tended to have the type of physique appreciated in professional wrestling, many were recruited by wrestling promoters. These football players were not exactly always talented in the sport, and were generally not as thoroughly trained in catch wrestling, but this didn’t matter much. The trade off is that they would bring attention to the sport and introduce more striking techniques such as shoulder tackles. The biggest of such crossover football stars was Gus Sonnenberg who played for several NFL teams in his tenure between 1923 to 1930. This trend of recruiting football players continues to this day with the likes of Bill Goldberg, Roman Reigns, and Happy Corbin in WWE, and Moose in Impact Wrestling. Conversely, wrestlers were recruited from more technical wrestling backgrounds in catch and amateur styles to lend an air of legitimacy. This included Olympian Ed Don George and catch wrestler Lou Thesz. This trend would also continue to this day with former Olympians and amateur wrestlers like Kurt Angle, and Chad Gable, and mixed martial arts fighters like Ronda Rousey, and Cain Velasquez.

The ring as we see it today was introduced around the beginning of the worked era, as the hard wood floors of a theater or the grass of the carnival grounds took its toll on the poor wrestlers. Instead, a ring kept a limit to the action while providing wrestlers with springy floors covered by canvass which allowed for more over-the-top moves. The moves themselves were played up so people from far away could see them, leading to flashier take downs, and more over-the-top submission holds that would not really work in a legitimate catch wrestling bout. Gimmick matches were also introduced at this time from common staples of professional wrestling like tag team and women’s matches, to less common stipulations like wrestling in a ring covered with fish, mud, or even metal shavings.

Now, at this point you might be wondering, did fans know it was fake? The answer is seemingly for the most part, as with today- yes. On this note, there were plenty of very public attempts to “expose” wrestling as fake since the worked era, yet each time the message would predominantly fall on deaf ears as fans already knew and were fine with it. In fact, promoters would even sometimes inform sports press about the outcomes of rival promotions’ matches the night before to try to ruin the shows. Thanks to the work of the Gold Dust Trio, these attempts at sabotage eventually ended, and a code of silence was thereafter mostly maintained. But either way, it’s clear that even early on, fans knew and accepted the reality of what wrestling had become.

That said, with World War 2, many older and more skilled wrestlers returned to the ring while the younger wrestlers went off to fight. This return of these veteran wrestlers skewed the needle back towards a focus on wrestling skill. But things went the other way very quickly and to an even more extreme degree after the war ended thanks to TV. At this point, we see pro wrestling really settle into the form we know it today. With TV, announcers were brought in to walk the audiences through the match and contribute to the story telling and spectacle. Further, with television, the charismatic entertainment aspect of wrestling could be played up even more such as with over the top interview segments and the like which have been a part of wrestling ever since.

All of this has led to the carnival and turn of the century origins of the sport being felt to this day, as men, and now women, play larger than life characters meant to entertain as they pretend to battle in the ring. While compared to many other professional sports where such rampant outcome fixing would likely kill the leagues, in this case, all the way back to the beginning of these fixed matches, nobody seems to care and simply enjoy being entertained and watching the outcomes of the stories the promoters and athletes come up with. Perhaps the bigger question in all of this is then,  why in this particular sport, even in the earliest days when things switched from legitimate to fake, does nobody seem to care the whole thing is fixed, whereas with so many other sports this transition would likely have seen the end of the professional league who tried the same in their sport?

Expand for References

Beekman, Scott M. Ringside: A History of Professional Wrestling in America. Westport: Praeger, 2006.

Morton, Gerald W. and George M. O’Brien Wrestling to Rasslin: Ancient Sport to American Spectacle. Bowling Green: Bowling Green University Press, 1985.

Shoemaker, David. The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling. New York: Gotham Books, 2013.

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