Professional wrestling is a world unto itself. Its shows are a unique combination of athleticism and theatricality, and it’s a huge worldwide business. The scope of professional wrestling encompasses everything from multimedia conglomerates such as World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and All Elite Wrestling (AEW) with live events in arenas, television, and streaming broadcasts, and pay-per-view specials to independent local companies that perform to small but enthusiastic audiences in community halls and gymnasiums.
The origins of this distinctive industry are the subject of Jon Langmead’s new book Ballyhoo! The Roughhousers, Con Artists, and Wildmen Who Invented Professional Wrestling. Delving into the history of this era of professional wrestling is challenging, requiring the researcher to locate and retrieve relevant documents from the late 1800s to the 1940s – if that documentation still exists.
The researcher must also navigate the reality that the professional wrestling industry was built on hype and illusion. Promoters and wrestlers were prone to florid exaggeration, and telling the truth was sometimes secondary to telling a compelling story. Newspaper coverage of wrestling events often reflected the same sort of hyperbole. Professional wrestling was also a business with good reasons not to keep accurate financial and operational records in case the taxman or other authorities decided to nose around.
Langmead’s strategy for addressing these challenges is not to seek objective truths but to let contemporaneous sources speak for themselves. His narrative is structured around the freewheeling career of wrestling promoter Jack Curley, who also ventured into promoting boxing matches and professional tennis games. Curley’s career spanned nearly 40 years and can be directly linked to the modern professional wrestling industry; in the ’30s, Curley worked with fellow promoter Toots Mondt, who then went on to partner with Vince McMahon Sr. in a wrestling company that eventually became WWE.
The matches that Curley promoted featured some of the biggest names of the early professional wrestling scene, such as Frank Gotch, George Hackenschmidt, and “Strangler” Ed Lewis. Although the industry was in its infancy, and wrestlers regularly performed in front of mid-sized audiences at state fairs and other local and regional events, the attendance at major matches was huge even by today’s standards. In 1929 alone, matches promoted by Curley drew 20,000 spectators in Boston (and, later in the year, 15,000 for another event in that city) and 10,000 in Los Angeles.
Initially, professional wrestling matches were largely displays of the participants’ physical strength. But that inevitably meant that bigger, stronger wrestlers were the winners, and audiences expected variety and suspense in matches. Langmead describes how wrestlers evolved their in-ring performances to incorporate more theatricality, if only to compete with other forms of live entertainment, such as stage plays and vaudeville.
The increase in the performativity of matches, along with some suspicious outcomes, led to the question that still haunts the professional wrestling industry today: is it real, or is it fake? On one level, the question is irrelevant; audiences can enjoy the action and the characters while implicitly accepting that the match results are predetermined so as to build ongoing storylines. (It could also be argued that complaints about fake professional wrestling are somewhat hypocritical. As some industry observers have noted, audiences go to theatres to see plays that have been performed for hundreds of years, knowing full well how the stories will end, but there are no complaints about live theatre being “fixed”.)
But “is it fake?” was a highly relevant question to regulators more accustomed to overseeing genuinely competitive amateur sporting events and law enforcement agencies that considered selling tickets to a less-than-honest competition akin to fraud. Part of the reason for Curley’s lengthy career was his ability to continue operating his business while evading authorities’ attempts to clamp down on what they saw as the less savoury aspects of the industry.
As a long-time wrestling writer, Langmead knows the industry well, and his enthusiasm for professional wrestling is evident in his exuberant prose. At times, the amount of detail in the narrative can be overwhelming, but Langmead does an admirable job of moving the story forward while fully portraying the characters and connecting the relevant events.
As the narrative concludes, some features of the modern professional wrestling industry are starting to emerge, such as alliances between promoters to control bookings of matches and venues. The industry continues to evolve, as in the recent merger of WWE and the mixed martial arts promoter UFC into TKO Group, largely owned by the talent and media organization Endeavor. This takes the industry into an entirely new phase, where professional wrestling may no longer be considered a unique form of entertainment but treated as just one of many sports-related content providers.
Ballyhoo! chronicles an era in the industry that has largely been forgotten. But the legacy of those early days is apparent in the larger-than-life personalities, devoted fans, and controversies that are still very much part of professional wrestling today.