This retired journalist changed professional wrestling from Mankato

MANKATO - In the late 1960s, Norm Kietzer stood inside an armory in Marshall, Minn., across from a man who could've popped Kietzer's eye out of its socket with just a thumb.

That man was Harley Race, a fearsome hulk of a professional wrestler known for his toughness and his bad behavior. Race once beat up three men in a Minneapolis diner after he spotted one of them slapping a woman — then went to the hospital to get a knife removed that he'd been stabbed with. And Race wanted Kietzer to pay for five speeding tickets Race had picked up on his way to the armory.

Kietzer wasn't afraid. He promoted the armory show that night. Race was the main event against "Cowboy" Bill Watts. And Race was over an hour late, making the fans wait to see him.

"I never paid those tickets," Kietzer said. "I handed them back."

Kietzer, 80, is a somewhat forgotten name in today's professional wrestling. Yet he had a huge influence on how fans see the sport.

From his Mankato home, Kietzer for decades published programs, magazines and memorabilia for a majority of wrestling promoters in the U.S. He was more journalist than writer, helping fans learn about their favorite athletes at a time when wrestling was divided into territories where competing companies put on matches without publicly acknowledging the competition.

Minneapolis is still waiting to hear whether it will be the next host of Wrestlemania, the biggest wrestling event of the year and one with an economic impact close to that of the Super Bowl. Kietzer's work paved the way for such national coverage once wrestling exploded with mainstream appeal in the '80s and '90s.

"He treated the fans with respect," Minnesota pro wrestling historian George Schire said. "He showed them that wrestling can be talked about while not making the fan feel like they're an idiot."

'A little sense of realism'

Kietzer grew up in nearby Vernon Center, where he watched American Wrestling Association (AWA) matches out of Minneapolis on TV. But he didn't get involved in wrestling until his time at Minnesota State Mankato.

At the matches in Minneapolis one night, he asked if he could take some of the programs home to redesign and sell when wrestling came to Mankato.

"I went to a quick-print place, cut stuff out of a few Minneapolis programs I had, typed up some stuff … and folded it in so it was a four-page program," Kietzer said.

Kietzer tried his hand as an English teacher in the area for two years but switched careers as the programs took off and he was offered a job at his first pro wrestling magazine.

Local wrestlers were touring "in other territories across the country over time," he said. "And they would show my programs to other promoters who would contact me and wonder if I could make up programs for them."

It wasn't long before Kietzer published innovative magazines to be sold at matches in other wrestling territories, also known as promotions. In the '70s and '80s, there were more than 40 territories in the U.S. and Canada. Kietzer worked with more than 20 at one point.

He treated the sport with more factual integrity than other promoter-sponsored publications, which often had fanciful or completely made-up stories. "He put a little sense of realism to it," Schire said. "He wanted to make it more journalistically correct than just some fabricated thing from the newsstand. And it worked."

Kietzer's publications were also training grounds for future historians like Schire, prominent wrestling journalists like Dave Meltzer, and even future wrestling personalities like Jim Cornette and Paul Heyman, who earlier this month was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.

Industry impacts

In 1972, Kietzer moved to New York to run even more magazines, where his actions had far-ranging repercussions felt to this day.

Kietzer says he suggested to Vince McMahon Sr. that his company, the World Wide Wrestling Federation should drop a 'W' from its name. McMahon did just that in 1979.

"I asked him if it would be OK to change the abbreviation in my publication for them to WWF," he said. "It would be the same as all the other promotions at the time as they all had three letters."

Schire said he had never heard that story before, but he believes Kietzer.

The WWF went on to national success, but a series of lawsuits from the World Wildlife Fund in the 1990s and early 2000s forced the company to change its name again, to World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE).

Kietzer also influenced women's wrestling at the time. In the late 1970s, the New York State Athletic Commission (which then included legendary baseball player Jackie Robinson) decided to stop licensing female wrestlers to compete.

"It wasn't what I wanted to watch, but I always thought the women should have the chance to wrestle same as the men," he said.

He published editorials asking whether the commissioners were bigots. Kietzer also asked Vivian Vachon, one of the most famous women's wrestlers at the time, to appear with him on talk shows in New York to discuss the issue. The commission reinstated women's licenses after a few years, paving the way for the WWE to incorporate more women.

Kietzer moved back to Mankato in the early 1980s after the magazine company he worked for shut down. It was there he started the Wrestling News, which has since become his best-known publication.

"When I first started taking pictures, [Tennessee promoter] Christine Jarrett encouraged me to send them in to the Wrestling News," Cornette said in an interview on the "6:05 Superpodcast" in 2017. "They wanted pictures of the guys so they [could sell] more magazines."

Opportunities dried up when territories went out of business as the WWE became more successful, which meant Kietzer couldn't publish as many programs.

He lost WWE's business after Vince McMahon Jr. took over, due to a spat. Kietzer said he inadvertently told McMahon Sr. about a TV screw-up his son was responsible for, where a local station played the wrong taped show a week early, leading to a decline in ticket sales at a big show. McMahon Jr. never forgave Kietzer and later blamed him for the legal troubles with the World Wildlife Fund, he claims.

Kietzer decided to retire once WWE became the preeminent promotion in the U.S. He sold his archives to a fellow journalist around 2003. Today, those archives are owned by Brian Last, a New Jersey wrestling historian and podcaster who restarted the Wrestling News in 2022.

Last has called Kietzer a trailblazer in covering pro wrestling. He's also teased another project involving Kietzer's archives on various podcasts in recent months. He was unavailable for comment.

Kietzer doesn't follow wrestling nowadays — his friends all left the wrestling business around the time he did. He still puts together a movie magazine on westerns for a handful of subscribers. He gets out to sing karaoke a few times a week.

Kietzer can't always remember exact dates, and he sticks to his journalistic code — he refuses to name his favorite professional wrestler, for example. And he remains proud of his work — and the time he refused to pay Race's speeding tickets.

"What I didn't tell him," he said, "was I made more money off concessions waiting for him to show up than at any other show I ever ran."