One of my favorite things about covering and following pro wrestling is that it’s basically infinite. There has just been so much pro wrestling all over the world for so many decades that there will always be more interesting stories and chunks of strange history uncovered, more footage found that nobody had ever seen before. Case in point is the WWE Network’s “Hidden Gems” section, which had previously been updated occasionally on no set schedule, but which was retooled as a weekly Thursday content drop this week. Devoted to rare and previously unreleased matches and segments, it was long a particular favorite of hardcore fans, especially those who used to trade videotapes and DVDs. That was, in large part, thanks to how WWE kicked it off. The first Hidden Gem to drop, in September 2016, included a match that had become the ultimate holy grail for collectors: “The Last Battle of Atlanta.”
The 1983 bout at the Omni in at Atlanta with the grandiose name was culmination of Tommy Rich and Buzz Sawyer’s blood feud; fans across the country got to watch on Superstation WTBS. It was pushed hard by the newsstand wrestling magazines as the epic of epics, adorning at least one cover, and was particularly eye-catching because it was the first time that a cage match properly trapped the wrestlers by putting a roof on top of the chain link fence; naturally, the best photo from the event shows Rich swinging into Sawyer with a dropkick while holding onto the roof. The Wargames matches in WCW built on the roof idea and Shawn Michaels later cited the Last Battle as a huge inspiration for WWE’s Hell in a Cell gimmick, which gave the 1983 match special historical significance to newer fans as well. It was undeniably a major moment in the sport, except for one thing that confounded fans for 33 years: There was no proof that any footage existed.
No clips appeared anywhere on TV, including the Sunday “Best of Championship Wrestling” show that aired matches from the Omni on a semi-regular basis. Urban legend also suggested that Ole Anderson, who was running the Georgia promotion at the time, had thrown out boxes of (possibly damaged, possibly salvageable) master tapes at some point in the 1980s or ’90s because they were taking up space in his attic or garage. No fans in the arena that night had shot any film or video as far as anyone knew, either. WWE.com’s Bobby Melok even wrote an oral history of the match in 2013 that noted the lack of footage—only to update it in 2016 when the footage, from the “very unorganized” WCW library, was released.
“In 2016, a group of reels from the WCW library, simply labeled ‘Omni Live Events’ were digitally transferred and logged,” the correction reads. “During the process, Eric Stefanowicz, Producer and Researcher/Historian for WWE’s Legacy Content team, discovered what many have referred to as the holy grail of wrestling video: The Last Battle of Atlanta. The video was in pristine condition. No restoration was required before it was uploaded to WWE Network, fulfilling the dreams of a generation of fans.”
The first weekly drop shows huge promise for the future, covering bases that should satisfy the hardest of the hardcores as well as more modern fans. If you’re not interested in the older stuff, there’s still Chris Jericho’s ECW debut, Triple H vs. Road Dogg when they were rookies in WCW, and The Undertaker vs. Jerry Lawler in Memphis just a few weeks before the former made his WWE debut, and Dean Ambrose vs. William Regal from 2012 in then-WWE developmental promotion Florida Championship Wrestling. The hardcores and older fans, though, have an even more impressive selection: A complete episode of Championship Wrestling from Florida from 1971 devoted to the career of Jack Brisco, Harley Race vs. David Von Erich from when the latter was a rookie in August 1977, a non-televised Roddy Piper vs. Greg Valentine match from Charlotte in 1983, Vader’s WCW title win over Ron Simmons from December 1992, and more.
All of which is to say that Hidden Gems got off to a particularly impressive start. Previously unseen complete television episodes from the territorial era are always fun, but it’s the nuts and bolts of the finds that really reveals how much promise is in this first batch and, by association, in the portions of the archive that have yet to be tapped. The Race-Von Erich match, for example, is complete without commercial breaks from a television taping in Fort Worth, Texas. Other than what got repeated nationally in highlight form once the Texas promotion started airing in syndication in 1982, it was believed that everything from the Fort Worth shows, which aired on regional superstation KTVT, had been taped over. The very existence of this match opens up possibilities that not even the biggest tape collectors knew existed. The same goes for Piper vs. Valentine: It’s not as if this particular match was famous, or on a card that was known to exist on video. If WWE has this match—which happens to be a fantastically heated piece of old-school main event wrestling, by the way—they probably have a good bit more, albeit on tapes that may not have been indexed and/or digitized yet. Vader vs. Simmons was known to exist, as the finish aired on TV, but knowing that WWE has the whole thing opens up the possibility that WWE has the full versions of all of the live event matches from that period, when only the finish was aired on TV. A number of those matches qualify for holy grail status, too.
Thanks to the rise standalone DVD recorders, YouTube, and file sharing all increasing the availability and ease of sharing videos, many collectors were worried that there were never going to be new finds—that what we have now was all we were likely ever to get. WWE Network is coming to the rescue on that front, and while the promotion is far from perfect and the network had a bit of a rough start, Hidden Gems suggests that someone there understand what makes wrestling fans tick. Hidden Gems is an unexpected love letter—and gift—to the hardcores. As private collectors continue to find more as well—camcorders used to be ubiquitous at Japanese cards, but the videos didn’t usually find their way to the west until some started digging into Japanese websites recently—there’s the sense that there may never be a shortage of new old footage to study and enjoy. If you’re the right type of wrestling geek, this is about the best news you could hope to receive.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix