A couple weeks ago at an independent wrestling show in New York City, the promoter, Jac Sabboth, arrived with a treasure trove of old magazines. Sabboth also owns a pro wrestling memorabilia store, but even bearing that in mind the selection was startlingly eclectic, from the most popular magazines from the 1970s and ’80s to a number of obscure ones that even I had never heard of. I culled and culled from a gigantic pile during intermission and after the event, negotiated a deal with some help from one of the wrestlers on the show, and finally escaped with approximately 20 magazines for $60. It is worth wondering why someone living in a cramped apartment in a crowded city would buy old periodicals of any kind. I can explain that, sort of. It’s because wrestling magazines are awesome, and different from basically any other type of publication, and because I love them.
From the 1960s through the late 1990s, fans of professional wrestling had precious few sources of information beyond what we saw on TV. If you were lucky, someone in your area may have tried to do a wrestling radio show sometime in the 1980s; your local newspaper might have had a wrestling column, although those were few and far between. WWE added their own glossy magazine in 1983, but it was blatantly a house propaganda organ, albeit with some nice pictures. If you really wanted anything more about the giddy violence happening in arenas and VFW halls across the country, independent newsstand wrestling magazines were your best bet. There were a lot of them, and they are a completely bizarre genre unto itself.
These magazines treated pro wrestling as a sport and not as an entertainment product, which is jarring from a contemporary perspective but just how things were done in that era. That doesn’t come close to describing what these magazines were actually like, though—think something like Fangoria meets Sports Illustrated, with a heavy focus on pro wrestling fanfic, a healthy dose of comic book flair, and some leering sexual exploitation. Something like that, but more ridiculous.
While they started to tone things down by the end of the ‘70s, the key to the magazines was their reliance on the most awesomely bloody photos available; the magazines generally had color covers and pulpy monochromatic insides of varying quality, but the gore was a constant. Bob Smith, who arrived at the wrestling-mag giant London Publishing after the covers got toned down, told Deadspin that his understanding was that retailers got complaints about the bloody covers, and that the good guy covers started to sell better. The hemorrhaging wrestler on the cover was usually blonde if only to make the plasma pop better. Bobby Heenan and Dusty Rhodes were particular favorites, but any prolific bleeder would do.
The headlines and teasers on the covers were stupendously sensational: The October 1974 issue of The Wrestler, which I’m holding right now, includes these gems: A Psychologist Analyzes...KILLER BROOKS; HOW THE SHEIK ALMOST ENDED DORY JR.’S CAREER; BRUNO SAVES STRONGBOW FROM A MASSACRE; THE BLOODY BATTLE IN THE DRESSING ROOM!, and EVERY MATCH SHE WRESTLES MAY BE HER LAST! As the tone and the earlier note about fanfic suggest, many of these stories were completely made up by the magazine writers because they matched up well with photos.
This format, popularized by the Victory Sports Series of magazines from Stanley Weston’s London Publishing and some of the lesser known publications that followed, was not the only one in use. Wrestling News and Wrestling Monthly, helmed by Jim Melby and later Norm Keitzer, played it as straight as anyone could while still treating pro wrestling as a legitimate sport. Weston’s magazines were the most popular and well-distributed, with The Wrestler, Inside Wrestling, Sports Review Wrestling, and eventually Pro Wrestling Illustrated (which still exists) being the best-known of the seemingly endless bunch.
By the time I was born, the magazines had been toned down quite a bit from their decadent and bloody zenith, with covers that generally focused on the more popular wrestlers in favor of emphasizing graphic bloody photos. That didn’t matter much for me, as it turned out, because my local used book store had picked up a healthy quantity of old wrestling magazines for me to consume and London also put out classic article collections from time to time. So even though these magazines do not exactly represent my personal nostalgia, my appreciation at the sheer ridiculousness of their approach is leavened by some real sentimentality.
“It would take a book to fully diagnose and analyze Killer Brooks, so I’ll attempt only a capsule outline of the mental derangements that drive Killer Brooks to his social and self-destructive ailings,” begins the aforementioned “A Psychologist Analyzes...KILLER BROOKS.” “Anyone who chooses to go by the name ‘Killer’ is trying to create the impression of being against life. He purposely, in the first instance of communication, wishes to discourage social contact. Some negative occurrence in his past makes him wish to drive people away from him.” The article, credited to the obviously fictional “Dr. Manfred E. Wilson,” later smashes past the line instead of tiptoeing over it. “His suicide attempts, whether they are real or phoney, show how deeply his psyche is scarred by his guilt,” the good Dr. Wilson continues. “They are the way the deeply neurotic and the psychotic exhibit their guilt and horror over actions to [sic] terrible to account.”
This brings us to apartment wrestling.
According to the memoir of Bill Apter, the most famous of the scene’s writers and photographers, a package of photos arrived at the company’s office in Rockville Centre, NY one day in 1973. They came from Theo Ehret, a brilliant black and white combat sports photographer in Los Angeles, who was on staff at the Olympic Auditorium and had been shooting ringside for years. Ehret also did modeling photography, though, and on that day in 1973, he included, unsolicited, a set of “apartment wrestling” photos—basically images of bikini-clad women putting each other in wrestling holds in an apartment decorated at the height of ‘70s aesthetics—along with the usual live wrestling photos. Weston made the call to feature them on the cover of Sports Review Wrestling as a regular feature to drive sales, and it worked. I don’t think I ever spotted any of the “apartment wrestling” era issues of Sports Review while going through old magazines as a kid, but I also recall that at least some of those purchases were made by my mom on her own, which could explain a lot. All I really knew of the concept back then was seeing ads for back issues of those magazines, including London’s apartment wrestling-only Battling Girls.
In poring over the magazine collection that I have rebuilt little by little after Hurricane Sandy I realized that I have exactly one such issue of Sports Review, dated September 1982, which came around the end of the apartment wrestling run. The bloody covers had already passed and the strapping David Von Erich graced the front of this issue; apartment wrestling took up less space in an inset than it had in its heyday. But it was still there: Apartment Wrestling Battle of the Month: Whirlpool of Terror! I then realized that I also had the June 1975 issue of London’s Ben Strong Wrestling—I’m not sure it was ever explained who Ben Strong was, but his name topped non-wrestling sports magazines from London as well—that featured a larger inset cover image plugging “The Apartment House Wrestling Match with $20,000 at Stake!”
According to Apter’s book, the apartment wrestling articles were written by Dan Shocket, who also wrote pro-heel columns in the various magazines. The apartment wrestling articles ran without bylines but routinely mentioned “Dave Moll” as the backer of the apartment matches for rich men. Shocket was arguably the best writer on the London staff in that era and created a world that, just from a glimpse at a couple of these stories, somehow feels more lived-in and thoughtfully drawn than the ones based on actual pro wrestling storylines. “At one time, about six months ago, Caryn was one of the most admired apartment wrestlers,” Shocket writes in his “Whirlpool of Terror” story. “Business executives would change meetings so they wouldn’t conflict with matches. One famous author pushed back publication date of a novel so the press party wouldn’t be on the same night as Caryn’s battle. It was the best of all possible worlds. Then it fell apart.” The story was set for “Caryn” to upend her unexplained losing streak in a match that featured “the searing pain of twisted limbs, scratched flesh, and mauling fury in the most tender places.” It’s a wrestling story, then, just more blatantly prurient and extravagantly false than the usual.
One thing I’ve wondered in the last couple years is how much these magazines could fuck up a young male mind, if only just because of the ads for instructional guides on gaining mind control over women. I wondered how exactly some random guy in Indiana mentioned in an ad “doubled the size of his penis in just one week” just as anyone else would, but that ambient scuzz was never why I got old wrestling magazines. I’m not claiming I read them for the articles, either. It was the florid, gratuitous violence. It still works:
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.