In 1960, French philosopher Roland Barthes was in Montreal working on the documentary Le Sport et les homes (Of Sport and Men). At a party he was introduced to Canadian cinematographer Michel Brault and their conversation, naturally, turned to professional wrestling.
Brault was part of a team of filmmakers working on a documentary that would expose professional wrestling as a con. They would use slow motion, he told Barthes, to show the mechanics, the sleight of hand, and the misdirection that made it run. “That they don’t really hit,” as Brault later said, “or that they have ways to fall so they don’t hurt themselves.” Barthes was horrified and he told Brault as much. Exposing wrestling would be like exposing theatre, Brault remembered him saying, “the people’s theatre—popular theatre. And you can’t expose that… you mustn’t destroy that!” Taking Barthes’ advice, Brault and his team turned their film, La Lutte (Wrestling), into a celebration of the pleasure that the audience took from getting caught up in the rough spectacle wrestling. A film that showed, in Brault’s words, “what was happening—not what we thought should happen.”
The writers behind publisher Stanley Weston’s line of wrestling magazines would have understood exactly where Barthes was coming from. They filled the pages of Pro Wrestling Illustrated, The Wrestler, Inside Wrestling, and a dozen other Weston-owned titles with absurd, fanciful, and sometimes poignant articles about the wrestling stars of the day. Working in a style that might be called creative journalism, Weston’s staff covered a sport that itself could be described as creative athletics; the blood was real and the punches and injuries were sometimes real, too, but the endings were always pre-determined and behind the scenes, out of view of the fans, almost everyone drank and caroused as friends and co-workers.
“I think we tried to be a part of the whole thing,” says Dave Rosenbaum, who began writing for Weston in 1985. “We weren’t trying to be apart from it. We were trying to be part of it; to add to the experience for the fans, not to take away from it.” Weston’s wrestling magazines had a remarkable publishing run from the ‘50s to the ‘90s, and some titles remain in production.
The matches Weston’s writers reported on really happened, but more often than not they made-up the interviews, the overheard locker room chatter, and the late-night confessions that their stories centered on. “I specifically remember that the first time I was asked to do a wrestling article, they gave me a bunch of photos, they told me what was going on, and I said, ‘Okay, do you have the phone numbers of the wrestlers so I can get some quotes?’ ” says Steve Farhood, who covered boxing and wrestling for Weston beginning in 1978. “And that was met with a lot of laughs, of course, because I didn’t know that you made up the quotes.” “We gave the fans what they saw and then we took them behind the scenes,” says Gary Morgenstein, who wrote for Weston from 1979 until 1983. “We opened the door. Now, what we were telling them was behind the door we would make up, most of the time. But we gave them something behind the door and it made sense, because we never wrote stories that didn’t make sense. And it connected.”
Stanley Weston began his magazine career in the ‘30s, covering boxing as a writer, photographer and cover artist for The Ring. Weston began publishing Boxing & Wrestling in 1953, running his operation from out of his house on Long Island, NY; the art department was in the bedroom and the basement doubled as the darkroom and filing area. Writing after Weston’s death in 2002, Stu Saks, who began working for Weston in 1979, described him as possessing a “twilight zone sense of humor, and [an] urgent need to raise the eyebrows of his audience.” He was fascinated by P.T.Barnum and “relished embellishment,” remembers Weston’s daughter Toby Cone. He loved delivering stories and never shied away from shocking readers or running afoul of good taste. A true magazine man, he published detective magazines, puzzle books, and western-themed magazines alongside his sports titles.
Following the success of Boxing & Wrestling, Weston soon created titles dedicated solely to professional wrestling; Wrestling Revue in 1959 and The Wrestler in 1966. Despite its popularity, professional wrestling was rarely covered in any kind of serious way in major publications and when it was it tended to be with a barely concealed derision. The assumption has always gone that wrestling is the entertainment of choice for mouth breathers and rubes. How else to explain the appeal of an attraction that is so silly, so obviously fake, and that deals in racial, gender, and sexual stereotypes that are so clumsily and tastelessly presented?
A journalist who covered it with any degree of seriousness risked being taken for a fool. This left an opening for Weston. “One thing I know how to do,” he told Newsday, “is I know how to give the public what it wants.” If fans wanted to read about their favorite wrestlers without being made fun of, the Weston titles were one of their only options. As his business grew, he constructed a five-story building in Rockville Center, NY to house it. “Wrestling,” he was known to say, “built the first four floors, and boxing built the fifth.”
In 1970, Weston hired Bill Apter, a 25-year-old wrestling obsessive from Queens. Apter soon became the face of the Weston magazines to the public through his near-constant presence at matches in New York’s Madison Square Garden and later, on cable television. During his over 20 years working for Weston he wrote news, managed freelance writers and photographers, shot pictures at ringside, and guided the direction of stories. Most importantly to the magazines, he gained the trust of local wrestling promoters. “[Bill] was very, very trusted in the industry,’ says Saks. “That was of huge importance to us, the fact that he was accepted by the industry and trusted by the industry. So they would tell him things that they wouldn’t tell someone they didn’t trust.”
Weston’s magazines approached wrestling from within the confines of kayfabe, the pig latin word for wrestling’s code of secrecy. It mandated that anyone involved in wrestling’s otherwise closed-door world portray every aspect of it as nothing less than on the level. “Keeping the family secret is what [kayfabe] really meant,” says Apter. “Magicians kayfabe the way they do their tricks. They don’t break the unwritten code and let the public in on how the business of trickery operates. It was the same back when kayfabe was the unwritten law in pro wrestling.” “I still get a little skittish talking about the kayfabe stuff because of all of the years that I didn’t discuss these things with anybody,” says Joe Bua, who wrote for Weston from 1982 until 1985. “Even at the magazine we never talked about how wrestling was fake. At the office we did but you know, when you saw fans at shows and stuff, ‘uh uh’. You had it as close to the vest as the wrestlers did at the time.”
In the pulpy pages of a Weston magazine, the snickering question that was invariably at the center of almost all media coverage on pro wrestling, the question of how people who watched wrestling could possibly take it seriously, never even came up. If Captain Lou Albano claimed that Mr. Fuji was a direct descendant of Japanese royalty, or Dusty Rhodes said he’d been blinded, the Weston magazines wouldn’t contradict them, they’d use the statement as a jumping-off point for a 1,000 word article. In the stories and columns that filled Weston’s titles, the exaggerated emotions, histrionics, and broad gestures that helped create what Roland Barthes described as wrestling’s “great spectacle of suffering, of defeat, and of justice,” were just the beginning of the story. Weston’s writers took storylines that were already overstuffed with pathos and melodrama and filled them up even more.
“Imagine if you’re reading a Superman comic,” says Rosenbaum, “and all of a sudden one of the characters says, ‘Superman’s not real.’ Nobody wants to read about that. You don’t want to ruin the fantasy. Most people enjoyed wrestling because of the fantasy and role playing and getting into it. It wasn’t our job to ruin it. It was our job to help it.” “To believe in something doesn’t take much,” says Eddie Ellner, who began writing for Weston in 1984. “That’s just the human condition. It hasn’t really changed, ever. A little bit of that idea of ‘a sucker born every minute’ is because the sucker is really willing to suspend their sense of discernment in the hopes of seeing a miracle.”
The entire world of professional wrestling was real but also utter fiction at the exact same time. “[With wrestling,] you have several different jetstreams of unconscious attractions,” says Ellner. “First of all, you have the whole good versus evil, that visceral base desire to root for somebody good to conquer somebody bad. Or secretly root for somebody bad to disrupt the good. You have a phenomenally and bizarrely athletic group of people doing really strange things, but whether it’s fake or not they’re really doing it. It may be pre-arranged but they’re actually executing, right in front of people.”
Writer Craig Peters at his desk (Photo Courtesy of Craig Peters)
“This is where I came to understand [wrestling],” says Craig Peters, who joined the Weston magazines in 1981. “I came to the conclusion that everyone knows there are certain things in wrestling that are fake. These guys don’t hate each other as much as they seem to. Okay, I get that, that part’s fake. On the other hand, that guy’s really bleeding. If he jumps off the top rope, he’s going to jam his knee. Knee injuries in wrestling are huge. There is impact. A 200 lb object hitting the mat from 12 feet, that’s physics. That’s real. So you know that there’s stuff that’s fake and you know that there’s stuff that’s real. You just don’t know where the dividing line is, and that dividing line changes all the time. It’s in the dance of that dividing line that wrestling becomes interesting.”
The writing in Weston’s magazines followed the same loopy logic. It was all a constantly shifting mix of fact and fiction, and the challenge for the conveyors of it was to keep the fans believing in something that wasn’t necessarily there. “In essence what we did was, we reflected what the business was all about,” says Saks. “The business was all about portraying wrestling as a sport. And we didn’t deviate from that in any way. We wanted to give the impression that wrestling was just like any other sport with a little bit more colorful characters.”
Weston began expanding his full-time staff in the mid-‘70s and reducing his reliance on freelancers. “The reason that our magazines did as well as they did,” says Peters, “is because the whole staff was made up of people who were journalism majors in college, or were English majors who worked on the college papers. People were sort of publishing professionals first and wrestling fans second.” To avoid drawing attention to the fact that so few writers were contributing to the magazines, many wrestling articles from the ‘60s and early ‘70s did not carry bylines. Looking to create more personality in his magazines and to connect more directly with readers, Weston’s editor-in-chief Peter King, worked to change that.
King gave each editor a bylined column. The writers became characters in each other’s pieces. They portrayed themselves as traveling the world, staking out dressing rooms, and risking physical harm in pursuit of the latest wrestling news. “I had a column called ‘On The Road,’ ” says Farhood. “So, from the comfort of my desk I would go on the road to wherever and tell a story. So, I write a column that I go to Minnesota to spend a weekend with Ric Flair, the most hated man in wrestling, to get a feel for what he’s really like. And I get there, and I don’t know what the hell made me think to write this, but I wrote that his best friend, and I made up a name, died just as I got there. So I say to Ric Flair, ‘Ric, this is not a good weekend, this is not a good time. You’re mourning, I’ll go home.’ He says, ‘No, I want you to see the real me.’ So over the course of the next three days that I’m ‘there,’ I find him to be an incredibly sensitive guy and a great friend. He’s saying all the right things, being there for the family; all that stuff. So the bottom line is Ric Flair wouldn’t know me if he spit on me, to this day or back then. That doesn’t matter. I got more letters from readers about that column than any boxing column I’ve ever written, and people were saying, ‘I’m a fan now. I never realized he was that sensitive.’”