It’s never been a secret that pro wrestling isn’t on the level, with plenty of stories on the subject going back all the way to the 1850s. The true reason it was a prearranged exhibition may have changed from fleecing gamblers to increasing entertainment value and maximizing box office revenue with more compelling rivalries, but regardless, it’s always been this way. While “everyone” knew, people in the wrestling business would either keep mum or go to absurd lengths to defend their field’s legitimacy, including inviting skeptics to try out stars with legitimate backgrounds so non-fans could be tortured. Eventually, 30 years ago this week, that cat was let out of the bag for good.
“Now It Can Be Told: Those Pro Wrestlers Are Just Having Fun,” read the New York Times headline on Feb. 10, 1989. The article centered around how “spokesmen for the World Wrestling Federation” had testified before the New Jersey State Senate that pro wrestling was strictly entertainment, a performance instead of a competition, with the goal of deregulating wrestling in the state. Netting just a single nay vote, the deregulation bill passed the Senate. Just like that, after decades of wrestlers and promoters fighting cries of fakery, the jig was up. The coverage in the Times and elsewhere treated this as a momentous occasion, the first time the truth had ever come out, but the real story is a lot more complicated.
The next day, the New York Post reported that Vince and Linda McMahon had both testified under oath in civil lawsuits that their product was pre-scripted. It was much more out in the open than that, though: New Jersey lobbying was part of a larger effort by the WWE to get wrestling away from athletic-commission oversight in as many states as possible, including Pennsylvania, California, Delaware, and Connecticut. This wasn’t even the first time a WWE executive had testified that wrestling was a “work” before a state legislative body. Two years earlier, now-Trump cabinet member Linda McMahon, then the WWE’s executive vice president, did just that before an ad-hoc committee by Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives, with Rick Santorum by her side as a legal advisor.
“Unlike professional boxers, professional wrestlers are not competing in contests where points are scored, and the winner determined, by potentially injurious blows struck at an opponent,” she said. “Instead, like the skilled athletes you see in the circus or the Harlem Globetrotters, our athletes are well-conditioned professionals who are the best at what they do. And what they do is entertain people.” When asked later what aspects of commission regulation gets in the way of her business, McMahon added that while she felt that the commissioners was acting with the best intentions, “I just think there are instances where professional wrestling, not being considered a sport, should not be under this regulation.”
WWE brass and spokesmen admitting that they were just putting on a show, obliquely or otherwise, wasn’t limited to the deregulation push, either. “I really don’t respond to that question,” Vince McMahon told the Boston Globe in early 1985 when asked if wrestling was “real or fake.” “I think it was done to death in the ’20s. But I hasten to say that we’re in the sports entertainment field. It’s not important to determine what wrestling is or not. It doesn’t fall into one particular category. It’s not in the category of sport, in the strictest sense of the word.” (This nonchalant attitude contrasts with “Dr. D” David Schultz’s long-stated claim that McMahon told him to “blast” ABC reporter John Stossel when he asked if wrestling was “fake.”)
Around the same time, Rex Jones, a national promotion manager for WWE, told The Morning News in Delaware that “the marketing position of our product is that it’s sports entertainment as opposed to pure sport.” The company more or less admitted it again in 1986 when volunteers from a local hotline for abused women threatened to demonstrate outside a WWE event to protest the portrayal of the relationship between Randy Savage and Miss Elizabeth. To quell the controversy, WWE spokesman Mike Weber said that “wrestling is entertainment,” and that the couple’s dynamic was “part of the show.” What was said in New Jersey in 1989 wasn’t really new; it just had higher stakes.
The larger topic of how commissions regulate pro wrestling is complicated. As I wrote last year, there was a sense of dread about the Louisiana commission overseeing WrestleMania week events, since there are numerous strange rules in place there banning specific wrestling moves. And as Linda McMahon described in her 1987 testimony, much of the regulation does little more than to benefit self-enriching bureaucrats. In particular, she cited Pennsylvania commissioners threatening to shut down shows if they didn’t get a ringside table for them and their family. There are some rules with legitimate benefits, like the requirements in many states for injury insurance and an on-site ambulance, although they can sometimes be overshadowed by the dumber, more corrupt elements.
The view in the wrestling business, then and now, is that the regulation was just a blatant tax grab. “I’m not knocking the commission, but they don’t do nothing for their percentage,” said then-WCW wrestler and current WWE writer/producer Michael Hayes on a 1989 Nightline episode devoted to the regulation/exposure topic. “I’m down here, they take our blood pressure. We know we’re healthy. They make us sign a contract and they get a big percentage.”
The most vocal advocates for more regulation were, by far, concentrated in Georgia, where there had long been no regulation of wrestling. Jim Wilson, the NFLer turned wrestler turned wrestling labor activist, felt the oversight would improve the situations of the wrestlers who had long refused to unionized. “It’s all a game,” he told Nightline. “It’s all a game that they are controlling. And they’re laughing all the way to the bank.”
For the most part, the media was more concerned with the “real or fake” question. “America, read my lips: I’m no phony!” exclaimed Roddy Piper in a Feb. 13, 1989 Good Morning America appearance excerpted on Nightline. “If wrestling is entertainment, and beating up people is [wrestling fans’] way of deriving entertainment, I’m one of the greatest entertainers in the world.”
The situation turned shambolic when “Captain” Lou Albano was brought on Nightline via satellite. According to Chokehold, Jim Wilson’s book, Albano told the show’s producers that he would echo the McMahons’ admissions and speak on the level about what pro wrestling truly was. Instead, Albano decided to have his cake and eat it, too, by saying that only the WWF was promoting matches with preordained conclusions:
It’s awful funny that they never said this before. The past five years, if they say it’s a fake, then it’s what the World Wrestling Federation has created themselves. However, there are alliances like the NWA and the AWA. There are wrestlers like Barry Windham, Mike Rotunda, “Dr. Death” Steve Williams; there are former wrestlers like “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and the legendary Bruno Sammartino who were true wrestlers, who really got in that ring and wrestled. So if there’s any fake involved in it, and if the WWF is saying that, they’ve created themselves. I believe we need a commission in professional wrestling for the fact that the wrestlers should be protected. And also, why shouldn’t the state collect revenue from us? Yes, there we admit that there is showmanship in professional wrestling, but however, they’re trying to get back to the basic of professional wrestling in the AWA and the NWA. And I don’t feel that the WWF has the right—if they’re fake, why should other people be jeopardized? Why should other wrestlers not have a doctor at ringside? Not be examined before they go in the ring?
Here’s the part that not many remember: In spite of getting through the state senate, the New Jersey bill didn’t pass. The damage done to pro wrestling’s mystique with national coverage of the biggest promoters saying it was for show was, at the time, all for nothing. A lawsuit in New Jersey tax court, an attempt to get WWE out of the percentage that the company paid as a sports broadcaster, didn’t go anywhere either. It took another eight years and Gov. Christine Todd Whitman pushing the bill through to end New Jersey’s wrestling regulation and bring televised WWE events back to the Garden State. Soon, though, on the independent scene, promoters pushing more violent action cropped up and were soon given a hard time. Three years after she pushed the deregulation legislation, Whitman started backing a law banning sharp object-intensive “extreme wrestling” on independent shows in the state. It passed, leaving the “extreme” variety “distinguished from professional wrestling” and under the regulation of the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board. It’s never been enforced.
“I think the press is missing the whole point,” Jesse Ventura told ESPN in 1989, accurately summing up the whole controversy. “It’s a little known fact that in many states, you have 14 guys in suits sitting around the ring and doing absolutely nothing.” He didn’t stop there, though. “The WWF is willing to do anything it can and say in order to get these ridiculous commissions off their backs.”
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y., 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.