MITCHELL'S TAKE MITCHELL: The Life and Death of the National Wrestling Alliance (#1270)
Sep 15, 2012 - 12:58:51 PM
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Mitchell's column first appeared in this week's PWTorch Newsletter #1270 published for Torch subscribers and VIP members - GoVIP .
By Bruce Mitchell, PWTorch columnist
It’s an interesting thing, seeing the final product of a documentary you participated in – the parts of the interview the producers cherry picked to make their points, the things they leave out, the oh my god is that my hair I look like I’m wearing a toupee…
Uh, let’s get back on track.
Michael Elliot’s second pro wrestling documentary, “History & Tradition: The Story of The National Wrestling Alliance,” is an entertaining overview of the organized crime, I mean, conglomerate of big-time promoters who, for several decades (sometimes) worked together as the most powerful force in the pro wrestling business. The film traces the evolution of the Alliance, mostly through the championship athletes it selected to carry its world-recognized heavyweight championship.
The documentary relies on both archival shoot interview footage from the NWA Champions themselves, and a mix of historians, current independent promoters, and wrestlers to drive the narrative. An intense Tim Hornbaker, author of the recent wrestling encyclopedia “Legends of Pro Wrestling: 150 Years of Headlocks, Body Slams, and Pile-Drivers,” and the book “National Wrestling Alliance: The Untold Story of the Monopoly that Strangled Pro Wrestling,” sets the stage in a Just The Facts Ma’am style by recounting how powerful promoter Pinky George called in some other promoters from across the country to set up a touring world champion, popular star Orville Brown, whom the different businesses could share as a major attraction.
After the demise of the infamous Gold Dust Trio trust that booked and controlled the most famous world champions, the wrestling business had seen too many wrestlers billed as world champion for any of them to be effective box office draws. Beau James, a Tennessee wrestler/promoter for many years, does a nice job of bluntly explaining both this and the other use of the power the promoters welded by working together – keeping workers of every stripe in line.
William Murdock, NCAA Champion and NWA Champion Jack Brisco’s biographer, details just what made Lou Thesz the archetype for world champions in his day. Thesz could maintain the wrestling side in a time where promoters worried about in-ring double-crosses that could lead to their losing control of one of the best money-making gimmicks. He also looked every inch the Sportsman, to the extent that sportswriters of the days may have known wrestling was fixed, but they all wrote up Lou Thesz when he came to town.
The independent documentary makes careful and effective use of action video footage on most of the NWA Champions – not an easy trick in an era when WWE owns the rights to the loin’s share of historical wrestling tape. You get a taste of Gene Kiniski’s wipe open style, of the scientific grace of Thesz, Brisco, and Dory Funk Jr., of the toughness of Harley Race, and the charisma of Buddy Rogers, Dusty Rhodes, and Ric Flair.
While the film misses the drama of Thesz telling a recalcitrant Rogers, just before he took the NWA Title back, “We can do this the easy way, or the hard way,” it scores when it lets the late Jack Brisco, Terry Funk, and Dory Funk Jr. tell their sides as to why Funk Jr. didn’t appear for the scheduled title change for a major show in Houston, Texas. It’s as compelling a story for its era in professional wrestling as the Montreal Screwjob was for another.
Jack Brisco’s clear ambivalence regarding the reality that came with achieving his lifelong dream of becoming NWA Champion may be the high point of the film.
Ric Flair notes he “got it at the tail end,” and as the last of the touring world champions who were pushed on main event television, and who went from territory to territory to burnish stars, you can hear the awe in his voice even now as he lists the NWA’s greatest champions.
The film recounts the short-term title-holders, Giant Baba, Tommy Rich, Dusty Rhodes, and Kerry Von Erich and their circumstances, but it’s clear that Ric Flair was the last NWA Champion before the Alliance and its championship for all intents and purposes died.
Unlike another recent pro wrestling documentary, “Memphis Heat,” which chose to end its history just as its subject ceased to be big time, “History and Tradition: The Story of The National Wrestling Alliance” devotes its last segment to chronicling the sad maneuverings of small timers who seemed to be playing roles in a play long since closed.
It’s probably best that promoters in the NWA’s prime, such as Sam Mushnick, Eddie Graham, Jim Barnett, Fritz Von Erich, Jim Crockett Sr., and Ray Gunkel, never lived to hear their claims. They built the NWA to be a lucrative business and specifically designed it to exclude the delusional.
Bob Trobich, the then-Executive Director of the NWA, is so well-spoken at explaining the major role the NWA has had in the wrestling world the last twenty years—when it hasn’t—you half-expect the camera to pan back to show that he’s been talking behind glass in a room with no corners.
The weakest part of the film is the half-explained who-cares story of some unseen guy calling himself The Sheik (like, in 20 years, if some indy wrestler decided to work under the name Hulk Hogan) who ended up getting stripped of the NWA Title. That what was once the most important championship in a worldwide business had been reduced to whatever this was is a story that didn’t need to be told.
In a strange way, WCW veteran The Stro makes the point better that the NWA died 20 years ago than the talking head who states it directly.
Every wrestler, he says, dreams of being the NWA Heavyweight Champion.
Only that’s not true. Every wrestler dreams of headlining WrestleMania. In its time and all over the world, though, the NWA Championship was like that.
(Bruce Mitchell has been a PWTorch columnist since 1990. He hosts the PWTorch Livecast every Monday night in the hour before Raw with Travis Bryant. The weekly two-hour Bruce Mitchell Audio Show with host Wade Keller is a VIP audio staple for years. His column archives dating back to 1990 are available in the Bruce Mitchell Library at the PWTorch VIP website.)
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