Photo credit: Susan Ragan/AP

To understand what Frank Deford, who died at 78 this past week, did for professional wrestling, you need to go back to one of his most famous articles, one which profiled what was, at the time, the other most popular entertainment sport in America. “The Roller Derby,” which was published in the March 3, 1969 issue of Sports Illustrated, was one of the longest features in the history of the magazine at the time, clocking in at about 15 pages.

Unlike the more sporting version that has popped up everywhere in recent years, Roller Derby, and its rival Roller Games, were, in their day, essentially pro wrestling on skates. Like many of the top wrestlers of the era, the participants had the skills to win legitimate contests, but were paid to put on performances with predetermined endings, night in and night out. Since Sports Illustrated was not in the business of covering “fake” sports, the skaters were not necessarily excited by the prospects of the article.

“Everyone was leery of me when I got there,” Deford told Wrestling Observer Newsletter editor Dave Meltzer in 2006. “I wanted to do it because it was part of American culture. Jerry [Seltzer, the promoter,] was scared to death. He thought I would make fun of it and tell people that it wasn’t legit. It didn’t take a genius to see that.” It took top female villain Ann Calvello—who immediately understood what Deford was trying to do—befriending him to get everyone else to loosen up. The resulting piece and Deford’s book, Five Strides on the Banked Track, are the definitive writings about the genre.

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The approach that Deford brought to Roller Derby was the same one that he later brought to pro wrestling. “He just was very educated, and he saw beyond the pale,” said one long-time friend who spoke to Deadspin. “He was a visionary like that. He could see a greater society. He was a writer, so he understood the value of a narrative. He understood that the basis of everything we do in sports, whether it’s baseball, whether it’s football, whether it’s wrestling, whether it’s Roller Derby: It’s all driven by storytelling, driven by a narrative. He understood that better than anyone else. He did not look down at wrestling, or look down at Roller Derby.”

That carried over to the 1990 launch of the National Sports Daily, the short-lived newspaper that boasted a roster of America’s best sportswriters. Deford, the editor-in-chief, wanted to do a wrestling column. There were local wrestling columns, including in major markets like New York, but pro wrestling just wasn’t covered by national sports media. Deford, seeing a sports product that, like Roller Derby, was not getting coverage anywhere close to commensurate with its popularity, wanted to change that. When he asked Los Angeles Times sports editor John Cherwa and NBC Sports’ Dick Ebersol, who produced the WWF’s Saturday Night’s Main Event specials, for advice, both suggested the same writer. They both subscribed to the same newsletter and said the editor would be perfect: the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. Taken aback by the offer, having idolized Deford going back to the derby coverage, he quickly accepted the gig.

Deford and National publisher Peter Price. Photo: Timothy Clary/AP

What was originally envisioned as a comedic wrestling column got serious quickly. The top wrestling story of the National’s second week was Sting blowing out his knee. Today, that would be bad enough; in 1990 it was looked at as a potential career-ender, so the humor was set aside. “The response to that straight story was such that I said, ‘Hey, I can’t go back and do bullshit again,’” said Meltzer in 1991. “So that was the direction. I knew people would like it, and they did. Intelligent people, they want to read wrestling writing that doesn’t insult their intelligence.”

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Some people didn’t think that way, though. Howard Cosell, ranting in his 1991 book What’s Wrong With Sports, singled out Meltzer’s column: “And what about the pro wrestling column in The National? How ugly. How insane.” That was when Deford publicly defended his protégée for the first time. “It was pretty condescending to me,” Meltzer recalled on Monday in a podcast for his website subscribers. “I just remember Frank ... that was the first time he did the thing of ‘The guy we have covering wrestling is one of the best sports reporters in the country, and it doesn’t matter what he’s covering; the fact is, it’s worth covering.” In later years, Deford would dub Meltzer “the most accomplished reporter in sport journalism” and tell the New York Times that “You could cover the Vatican or State Department and not do as good a job as Dave Meltzer does on wrestling.”

The rise of the column and Deford’s endorsement had two obvious benefits to Meltzer’s career: Not only did his credibility among mainstream reporters develop quickly, but the Observer, which he had been doing full-time since 1987, saw a huge surge in popularity. “Essentially what I did get paid ended up going into paying for a weekly ad in the newspaper for this publication,” Meltzer wrote in his Deford obituary in this week’s newsletter. “That period helped this publication grow and that exposure was great not just for this publication, but for the entire genre of wrestling newsletters at the time.” Every Tuesday, not only did wrestling fans stumble onto Meltzer’s classified ad for the Observer, but they also saw listings for other wrestling newsletters as well.

As Meltzer told Jake Rossen in a 2013 New York Times piece, “That was the difference from eking out a living to making a good living, that exposure.”

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Tuesday’s issue of the National was usually the most popular issue of the week, and while Meltzer chalked it up to coincidence, Deford absolutely did not. As 1990 went on, Deford was clearly thrilled with Meltzer. That’s perhaps clearest in the path of an article that Deford wrote that year, profiling then-recently departed female wrestler Mildred Burke. Originally, it was something he had earmarked for the National or a screenplay pitch. He ended up gifting it to Dave to use free of charge in the Observer’s yearbook.

“I have to give Deford an immense amount of credit,” Sports Illustrated media reporter Richard Deitsch, who worked with him, told Deadspin. “I’m not sure many other top editors would have seen the potential for a wrestling column. I think even back then, it was verboten, to be a sophisticate and also declare yourself a fan of wrestling. So for him to have put that in the National, which had a lot of high-end writers, a lot of very, very Sports Illustrated, Inside Sports kind of literary sports journalism, was really, really impressive. Deford was really, really ahead of his time in recognizing that there was a demand for this. You wonder: If Deford wasn’t the editor of the National, would Meltzer ever even have been approached? Just someone who didn’t see it the way Deford did.” It’s only in the last several years that mainstream wrestling coverage has exploded, which Deitsch credits to more fans in power at media companies where they can point to the obvious demand that exists.

Meltzer and Deford, working together at the National, were on the First Amendment side of the first public dispute between the WWF and the wrestling media. The catalyst is quaint by 2017 standards: Sgt. Slaughter, after six years as a cartoon voice actor and independent wrestler, came back into the WWF fold as a villain, soon becoming an “Iraqi sympathizer.” With Operation Desert Storm commencing two days before Slaughter’s WWF Championship win, it seemed like a line had been crossed.

A few days after the show, in the National, Meltzer laid out what his reporting had uncovered. Among other things, McMahon’s advisers, fearing bad mainstream press, had tried to change the storyline to no avail. The WWF’s response was, essentially, to accuse Meltzer of defamation. WWF executive Richard Glover addressed an angry letter to Deford and copied Meltzer on it, saying the article “contained many statements that Mr. Meltzer reasonably should have known were false.” The only part that wasn’t strictly an argument over the truth of what sources told Meltzer was that he attributed Hulk Hogan not going to Saudi Arabia to the USO, when it was actually a decision made by the State Department. (Meltzer had simply misunderstood the WWF announcers, who said that “they” wouldn’t let him go.)

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The next Observer was devoted almost entirely to the correspondence between the WWF, Meltzer, and Deford, with Meltzer’s reflections on the affair and the feelings that it brought up separating each letter. It is one of the finest things Meltzer had put together, and there are few better introductions to his work.

Deford, of course, stood his ground. “If you will forgive me, once again the larger issue here is that the WWF seems to think that it deserves a different standard of journalistic treatment than do other sports/entertainment entities,” he wrote to Glover. “This is insane. THE NATIONAL, and Dave Meltzer in particular, are wrestling fans. So are many of our readers. We like you—lots—but you deserve to be treated just as other sports, as other entertainment productions.”

Months later, long the whole thing had seemingly blown over and after the National had folded, Vince McMahon clearly disagreed with Deford’s position. That summer, Deford, his wife, McMahon, and wrestler-turned-executive Pat Patterson were all at a country club for the 40th birthday party for TV sports producer John Filippelli, then a WWF employee. Eventually, they moved to the club’s bowling alley, where it got weird. Depending on the telling of the story, McMahon, either on his own or with Patterson’s help, stole one shoe each from both Defords while they bowled. When the party ended, McMahon didn’t return the shoes, so Frank and his wife each went home with a bowling shoe on one foot.

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The story went public over 15 years later, when McMahon went off about it after a congressional interviewer, investigating pro wrestling’s drug problem, brought up Deford’s endorsements of Meltzer’s work chronicling wrestler deaths. As McMahon explained it, Deford was holding a grudge over the shoes for a decade and a half. One person familiar with what happened at the party told Deadspin that the story was blown out of proportion, with McMahon’s goal being to show Deford “that nobody was beyond teasing.” The source, however, was not aware of McMahon’s congressional testimony about the incident until being informed of it during our conversation.

“I’m rather amazed that McMahon would bring this up, but it’s a pretty accurate account of him acting like a horse’s ass,” Deford told Irv Muchnick in 2009. Three years later, in Over Time, Deford’s memoir, he added a few additional details, the most memorable being that months later, McMahon sent him and his wife a Christmas card asking where the shoes were.

Deford continued to cover wrestling from time to time, both on HBO’s Real Sports and in his weekly commentary on NPR’s Morning Edition. His last segment on the genre was an uplifting one, telling the world about how Diamond Dallas Page helped Scott Hall and Jake “The Snake” Roberts sober up and get into shape.

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In the interim, in early 1992, one of his NPR commentaries focused on the WWF’s original steroid scandal, essentially imploring the children’s heroes who populated the company to come clean and tell the truth about their drug use. After it aired, McMahon angrily phoned Deford, who recounted the chat to Muchnick soon after for the March 3 edition of the Village Voice.

“I have proof I’m not a mobster!” McMahon yelled in this accounting. The words rang out conspicuously when he blurted them out, but the claim was at least nominally true. Several weeks earlier, dealing with the public allegations of “Superstar’ Billy Graham, McMahon’s lawyer quickly got to work. He obtained a letter from James J. West at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Pennsylvania, saying that there was no investigation into any such mob connection.

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Deford, however, was thrown by McMahon’s claim. He had never said a word about Vince being in with the mob, much less during that conversation.

David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.