COMMENTARY | Although professional wrestling has always been scripted entertainment, the industry is very different today than it was decades ago.
When I consider the major eras of pro wrestling, I generally divide them into two parts, with Vince McMahon, Jr. taking ownership of the WWF in the early 1980s as the dividing line. Prior to McMahon running the WWF, wrestling presented its product as "sports," even though the outcomes were predetermined and most fans knew this. But McMahon admitting that pro wrestling was entertainment forced all promoters to alter their product.
In the past, wrestling had been more about the product rather than the presentation. The legends of the past were strong, but they didn't have sculpted bodies. Cardio was more important than weightlifting because many matches lasted 30-60 minutes and they were often contested as best two-out-of-three falls. Also, the wrestlers of the past did interviews to promote matches, but mic work wasn't nearly as important as it is in today's drama and storylines.
A representative sample of the legends of the bygone era of wrestling would include Lou Thesz, Antonino Rocca, Verne Gagne, Bruno Sammartino, Crusher and Bruiser, Buddy Rogers, Dusty Rhodes, Harley Race, and Terry Funk. There are certainly other legendary wrestlers of the past, but for brevity, I'll stick to these 10. If a time machine picked up these wrestlers in their primes and deposited them in 2013, how would they fare in today's sports entertainment?
Although you can get work on the indy scene if you're not in shape, it's hard to imagine Dusty Rhodes even getting a shot in WWE or TNA today. Rhodes did work briefly in the WWF in the late 1980s, but he never rose above mid-card status and he had already built a strong reputation elsewhere. Still, Rhodes was exceptional on the mic and I could possibly see a major promotion hiring him as either a commentator or manager.
Another category of older wrestlers was the legitimate tough guys. These wrestlers preferred to drink beer and fight for fun instead of getting a tan and living in the gym. Crusher and Bruiser clearly worked out, but they seemed to have so much fun wrestling, that you always had the feeling they'd do it for free. Harley Race was as tough as they come and although Terry Funk had a comical side, he was also a legitimate brawler.
I believe Crusher and Bruiser would get a shot today. They remind me somewhat of the Dudleys. Crusher and Bruiser could fight as dirty as anyone, but they also had a sense of humor. But I'm sure McMahon would make them work off their guts. Harley Race reminds me of Wade Barrett. He's a good wrestler and he's someone you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley. But is Race charismatic enough to get a major push today? Terry Funk's package as a decent talker, good seller, mean streak, and sense of humor would likely put him ahead of Race in today's industry.
Lou Thesz and Bruno Sammartino just had an aura of greatness about them. They were both good workers, but there were other wrestlers who were even more fundamentally sound. In the past, pro wrestling was often like the wild wild west behind the curtain and wrestlers who dressed well, stayed out of trouble, and showed up when they were supposed to were a commodity. This at least partially explains Thesz and Sammartino's long title reigns.
Although it pains me to say this, I can't imagine Thesz succeeding at a high level today. His conditioning for one-hour matches isn't needed now. I also can't see Thesz dancing, strutting like a rooster, dressing up as a clown, or waving a cape in front of a fake bull as other wrestlers have in the WWE. Even Sammartino wouldn't be as popular today because he got over in the WWWF by playing up his ethnic roots in the northeast. But I think he could work in TNA.
It's difficult to predict Verne Gagne's success today because as owner of the AWA, he basically put the title on himself. But it's easy to forget that in his youth, Gagne was an outstanding technical wrestler who came close to becoming NWA World Heavyweight Champion. Outstanding amateur wrestlers can always get a shot today and so would Verne Gagne. But needless to say, he wouldn't stay on top as long as he did in the AWA.
The final two wrestlers in my sample are anomalies in that they were trailblazers by utilizing styles that are more popular today than in their eras. Antonino Rocca was a high-flyer when most wrestlers were content to hold headlocks for 15 minutes. He was also a legitimate athlete, with a great singing voice. I can't honestly grade his mic work, but I believe Rocca could succeed today, especially in the WWE, better than most legendary wrestlers.
If Buddy Rogers descended into 2013, there is no doubt he'd be a major star. Rogers had a fantastic physique, golden tan, and natural charisma. Rogers simply exuded greatness in an era when most wrestlers learned how to work and that's about it. He also carried himself with the same level of class as Thesz and Sammartino. Rogers was a good talker who could adapt to today's style of mic work. And he wouldn't even need a gimmick.
Most wrestlers of the previous era would not possess the complete skill set to succeed in today's business. But most of the legendary wrestlers of the past would likely succeed today in varying degrees.
Of course, it's also likely that once these legends arrived in 2013 and saw how "pro wrestling" had morphed into "sports entertainment," they'd jump right back into their time machines and get as far away from 2013 as possible.
Patrick Michael lives in New Orleans and has always been a big fan of pro wrestling. Patrick's favorite wrestling promotion was Mid-South Wrestling back in the 1980s. Patrick's favorite wrestling angle of all-time was the NWO and his favorite wrestler is Roddy Piper. Follow Patrick Michael on Twitter at patmichael84.
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