Let's begin with a question. Without looking it up, who was the first person we would recognize today as a professional wrestler?
...hoo boy. Either you have never paid any attention to professional wrestling, or you are incredibly ignorant of what you've been watching. Even in the era since Hulk arrived on the scene, took the spotlight from the likes of Bruno Sammartino, and repeatedly took wrestling by storm, names from long before had been placed on screen and even in the ring, like Bob Backlund (who debuted in 1973), Gorilla Monsoon (who debuted in 1959), and Mae Young (who debuted in 1939.) Young to this day still recalls her having been wrestling in Memphis the day of the Pearl Harbor bombing.
Hulk Hogan, meanwhile, debuted in 1977.
"You mentioned Bruno Sammartino. What about him? Who's he?"
Sammartino debuted in 1959, same as Monsoon. He holds the all-time record for longest reign as champion of what was then the WWWF (World Wide Wrestling Federation), or for that matter any other pro wrestling world title belt. That reign lasted from 1963- a defeat of "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers"- to 1971- a loss to Ivan Koloff. He left the promotion on poor terms, and has since grown to hate what pro wrestling has become, but since Vince McMahon is the one with the bully pulpit, you don't hear from Sammartino much these days.
"Oh, geez, who's that one guy, the pretty boy. First one with a gimmick."
You mean Gorgeous George?
"Yeah, him! That's the guy."
He debuted in 1932, earlier than anyone we've mentioned so far. He was in fact the first to have a gimmick that really, truly went over with the crowd: the aforementioned pretty-boy image. He dyed his hair blonde, wore perfume and bobby pins, used Pomp and Circumstance as theme music decades before Randy Savage did, had a valet named Jeffries who laid out a red carpet and threw rose petals, the works.
It should go without saying that George cheated and cried like a baby every time he got beat up. The whole act, combined with the earliest days of television, caused people- and by people we are referring to World War 2 veterans who saw George's manhood fairly lacking- to pay top dollar for the privilege of hating him in person. Prior to George, you could get away with being a straight-laced gimmickless grappler. After George, it was all about the showmanship from then on.
But he's not who we're looking for. There were some before him. And there were gimmicks before him as well.
"Well, who, then?"
What must first be made clear is that professional wrestling was borne out of true, non-kayfabe, we-don't-know-the-winner-in-advance wrestling. This type of wrestling, borne out of Lancashire, England, was known as 'catch' wrestling- short for catch-as-catch-can- and one melded slowly into the other. Here's a clip from 1903 of what catch-as-catch-can looks like, unearthed by HBO.
The melding was smooth enough that the question of who should be called the first true pro wrestler can be a slightly maddening thing to answer. However, one place can help out: the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum in Amsterdam, New York. Unlike WWE's in-house Hall of Fame, which inducts based on who happens to be in good standing with WWE at the time, the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame is not affiliated with any one promotion, and thus has a purer interest in chronicling the sport's true history. Even so, the question of who is pro and who is not proves a matter of interpretation. Do you count the first with a gimmick? The first to accept money? The first to wrestle a match whose outcome was decided in advance?
Ultimately, I opted to go with the earliest-debuting wrestler the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame had inducted. This was Martin "Farmer" Burns, who debuted in 1869 and is today known as "The Grandmaster of American Wrestling". Back then, wrestling was the realm of traveling carnivals and take-on-all-comers contests. The latter was a format in which cash was awarded to any man that could throw, defeat, or sometimes merely survive against a featured wrestler. At age 8, Burns claimed one such prize, worth 15 cents, and was on his way.
Burns was born in a log cabin in Cedar County, Iowa. As the nickname suggests, he was raised on a farm. His father died when he was age 11, and to help support the family, Burns went to work. Burns went to a lot of work. He would farm; he would log; he would chop wood. He would also carry his work ethic into the gym, or at least what passed for a gym back then.
The most imposing feature of Burns was his neck, which he built up to a 20 inch diameter after losing a match early in 1886 to a stranglehold applied by Evan "Strangler" Lewis. (For reference, Shaquille O'Neal's neck also measures 20 inches. But while Shaq weighs around 325 pounds, Burns came in at a mere 160.) Once developed, he demonstrated the strength of his neck by having himself hanged.
Yes. With a noose. He did this regularly, often several times a day. For good measure, while he was up there, he would whistle "Yankee Doodle Dandy".
In 1889, Burns made his big break at an event in Chicago. At this event, $25 was offered to anyone that could avoid being thrown for 15 minutes each by Jack Carkeek and, as fate would have it, Evan "Strangler" Lewis.
Carkeek, for one, had heard of Burns, who aside from the loss to Lewis had run roughshod over the Iowa wrestling circuit, and wanted no part of him. Carkeek asked the booker to call the whole thing off as soon as he knew of Burns' intentions, but Burns, who had come into town in the first place to deliver hogs, said he was there for the next ten days, and anytime Carkeek was ready would be fine.
Carkeek's fears turned out to be well-founded. Despite Burns showing up in his farmer's overalls (and picking up his nickname in the process), underneath those overalls was a very strong, very scary man. Carkeek never had a prayer. Instead of throwing Burns, Burns threw him around for the 15 minutes. Lewis was next, and he knew Burns from before. But Burns had built his neck up because of Lewis, and this time Lewis had no answer. Burns took the $25, and space in the Chicago papers.
Aside from his conditioning, Burns benefited from having a well-rounded wrestling style. In those days, the rules were far from uniform, with the legality of various moves altering from match to match. One-dimensional wrestlers were in big trouble if they found themselves in a match where their signature move was banned. Burns had many moves to fall back on- the full-nelson, the half-nelson, the chicken wing, the double wrist lock, the hammerlock, several kinds of toe holds.
Most importantly to wrestling, Burns popularized the concept of the pinfall. In the days of catch wrestling, it was more common to win a match by throwing your opponent to the ground, with pinfalls only coming into play if nobody had made a throw after a certain timeframe. (Matches sometimes had a time limit. Sometimes they didn't. When they didn't, bouts could potentially last for hours. Nine-hour fights were not unheard of.) Burns milked the art of the pinfall for all it was worth. If it was too early in the match for a pin to decide things, Burns didn't care. He would pin just to set up one of his holds. Nobody else was giving the pin nearly as much attention to such great effect. It was like Notre Dame popularizing the forward pass in football.
Over the years, Burns would claim to have wrestled thousands of matches, only losing six or seven. The exact numbers seem as academic as any other win-loss record in the sport that isn't the Undertaker's Wrestlemania winning streak. The point is made.
By 1893, Burns had advanced to the role of teacher. He would never really stop wrestling, but now he was training as well. In that year, he opened his first gym in Rock Island, Illinois; later, he would open another in Omaha, Nebraska. In 1914, he published a mail-order, 12-month wrestling course called 'Lessons in Wrestling and Physical Culture', which, true to Burns' nature, emphasized hard work, holds, and devoted one lesson to building up the neck.
One of Burns' many, many students was fellow Iowan Frank Gotch, another Hall of Famer who claimed a world title in 1908, and whom some consider to be the greatest wrestler of the era, if not of all time. In fact, another of Burns' lessons concerned a move called the "Gotch Toe Hold". Burns acted as coach for Iowa's first state wrestling champion, Cedar Rapids Washington, in 1921. To this day, the hotbed of collegiate wrestling continues to be the Plains states, ranging from North Dakota and Minnesota to Iowa, Nebraska and Oklahoma. Iowa remains the capital of wrestling in America, chiefly due to Burns' lessons and Gotch's testimonial performances.
Burns lived long enough to see Gorgeous George begin his career, but not long enough to see the persona debut; the man behind it, George Wagner, would not adopt the Gorgeous George persona until 1941, and Burns died in 1937. So it's possible that Burns died not quite realizing the direction his sport would ultimately take.
Meanwhile, while all that is seen today in the sport can ultimately trace back to the roots Burns had laid, today's competitors and especially fans are in all likelihood not aware of just who started them down the path they now tread.
But while neither end of professional wrestling's timeline may be able to quite see the other, they in at least one sense remain kindred spirits.
After all, if someone came out and hanged himself every week as part of his entrance, you'd notice.