MOONEYHAM COLUMN: Wrestling film recalls glory days of the NWA
There was no greater organization during the glory days of professional wrestling than the National Wrestling Alliance.
As the late Hall of Fame announcer Gordon Solie was wont to say, proudly pointing to the NWA emblem in the background, “When you see this symbol, you are assured of the optimum in professional wrestling.”
A new documentary on the storied organization does a great job in supporting that claim.
Michael Elliott, a Charlotte-based filmmaker, spent months interviewing wrestlers, promoters, journalists, historians and photographers about the NWA’s past and present. His documentary, titled “History and Tradition: The Story of the National Wrestling Alliance,” provides an excellent chronology of the promotion and its major title.
Although the organization still exists as a splintered group of promotions under the NWA banner, the company — at least as most longtime fans knew it — basically ceased to exist after then-world champion Ric Flair went to New York in 1991 following a dispute with WCW executive vice president Jim Herd and took the NWA championship belt with him.
The NWA heavyweight title, regarded by many as the most distinguished and revered in professional wrestling, for many years was the crown jewel of the industry.
Tracing its lineage to George Hackenschmidt’s 1905 title and Frank Gotch’s 1908 version, the NWA title is the oldest surviving wrestling championship in the world, having also been defended in other promotions such as WCW, ECW and TNA.
But it was the gold standard dating back to the NWA’s inception in 1948 until the decline of the territory system and eventual sale of Jim Crockett Promotions to TBS owner Ted Turner in 1988.
The title is synonymous with some of the greatest champions in wrestling history: Lou Thesz, Gene Kiniski, Dory and Terry Funk, Harley Race, Jack Brisco and Ric Flair.
And if you’ve ever seen Flair deliver one of his impassioned promos on wrestling’s greatest title, you’ve likely heard those same names mentioned with the reverence reserved for such an honor.
The documentary features excellent commentary from mat pundits such as Jack Brisco biographer Bill Murdock, Mid-Atlantic expert Bruce Mitchell, NWA historian Tim Hornbaker, wrestler/promoter Beau James and former NWA executive director Bob Trobich, along with clips from most of the NWA world champs from the modern era.
The organization’s world champions were carefully handpicked from the best of the best in the business. They were touring champions who defended the prestigious title not only across the country, but throughout the world, often six or seven nights a week.
The schedule was grueling and the matches were long.
That’s what made Dory Funk Jr.’s 4 1/2-year title run from 1969-73 so extraordinary. Many experts categorize it as the greatest world title reign in wrestling history. His younger brother, Terry, would carry the title a few years later, making the Funks the only brother duo to hold the coveted crown.
Most of the NWA champions of the past half century put their own unique stamp on the title.
Ric Flair took early 60’s NWA champ Buddy Rogers’ “Nature Boy” gimmick to the next level a decade later and went on to become arguably the greatest performer in the industry.
Lou Thesz, a “gentleman’s champion” who set the standard for a future generation of stars, personified everything an NWA world champion should be and paved the way for future champs such as Jack Brisco.
Thesz, perhaps more than anyone, was responsible for molding the NWA title into a brand that was respected around the world. He was a national icon in post-World War II America and a major star during wrestling’s first television boom, only later to become revered by a generation of fans in Japan where he was that country’s first international champion and the first American champ to defend the title on Japanese soil.
Brisco, an All-American collegiate wrestler and NCAA heavyweight champ at Oklahoma State where he lost only one match during his career, followed in Thesz’s footsteps as a wrestler’s wrestler. A two-time NWA world heavyweight champion, Brisco was regarded as one of the greatest technical wrestlers in the sport.
Dusty Rhodes may have represented a change in the image of traditional NWA world champions, but his coronation in the early ‘80s marked the beginning of a new type of champion whose charisma played as important a role as wrestling ability.
Harley Race, an eight-time champion, will be remembered as one of the greatest titleholders in the organization’s history, encompassing a number of qualities, not the least of which was his toughness in the ring.
All of these legendary figures are discussed at length in the film, and all weigh in on why the title meant so much to them and the history of the sport.
“That title is what gives the NWA life,” Trobich states in the documentary. “As long as there is professional wrestling, as long as there are fans of professional wrestling, there will be the NWA.”
More than a few pundits, however, consider the NWA to have died, at least unofficially, years ago.
“It doesn’t make me happy that it’s still around,” says Mitchell, senior writer for the Pro Wrestling Torch newsletter. “I think it should be put to bed.”
For Mitchell, and others, the NWA should be remembered for what it was — not what it became.
“I think it should be remembered accurately. And that accuracy is that champions went around the world, drew big, big money and had tens of thousands of people watching them defend the title ... not in some high school gym.
“I think that it’s neat that the history of professional wrestling is being documented. It could have been lost, but the truth has to be there.”
Mitchell says it was a great concept “when it was right for the day.”
“It’s not now,” he adds.
New day for NWA
The wrestling landscape, at least in regard to the National Wrestling Alliance, has changed since the release of Elliott’s documentary.
Texas attorney and former Championship Wrestling from Florida ring announcer R. Bruce Tharpe has taken over control of the company.
As part of a lawsuit that was recently settled, the NWA name and intellectual property was transferred from Pro Wrestling Organization, LLC, headed by Trobich, to a new company headed by Tharpe.
Tharpe, son of longtime Florida wrestling office worker and ring announcer Chet Tharpe, has vowed to restore some of the organization’s former glory.
“We think there’s a lot of things that can be done with the brand that hasn’t been done,” says Tharpe. “We’re anxious to go forward and do the best that we can to restore the NWA name and brand to the position of prominence that it so proudly held years ago.”
“I come from the old school — the NWA — and my dad knew Sam Muchnick back in the day,” he adds. “There’s something personal there in terms of wanting to restore the brand to a position that it once held.”
New NWA vice president Fred Rubenstein also is excited about the organization’s revival.
“We’ve had interest from all around the globe,” says Rubenstein. “People have been waiting for this resurrection and waiting for this injection of fresh and progressive ideas, and it’s time to do that. We have a very deep love for the professional wrestling industry.”
The passion is there for Tharpe as well, but he notes that it’s still a business.
“We are businessmen and we wouldn’t be in this were we not trying to develop revenue streams. Certainly we love the business, but this is not a hobby to us. I look at this as a profession, and we’re going to treat the brand with the respect it deserves.”
To that end, says Tharpe, the company is going to help the licensees who will be working with them as NWA promoters.
“We want to help them make more money,” says Tharpe. “We’ve got a lot of ideas in terms of organizing all the licensees by state and trying to coordinate dates so we can book some top talent.”
“We’re not looking to compete with Vince McMahon,” adds Rubenstein. “We don’t have billions in the bank. We’re not looking to compete with the Carter family and TNA. What we’re looking to do is restructure the National Wrestling Alliance.”
The NWA has been in operation since 1948. Prior to the 1960s, it acted as the sole governing body for most of professional wrestling, operating as a talent and brand name franchiser for the territory system.
The NWA, says Rubenstein, is seeking to present the best product it possibly can.
“We’re looking for people who can present an exciting product that can rely not overly so on multimedia, pyrotechnics and video screens ... people who do it the way that we used to enjoy it. Kayfabe met a very cruel and unnecessary death. And while we can’t unring the bell, we can certainly make sure it doesn’t ring a second time.”
Tharpe, who joined the NWA last October, says he has received an extremely positive response from current NWA members. The organization, says Rubenstein, practices “inclusion — not exclusion.”
“Everybody else has been extremely excited,” says Tharpe, adding that a number of misconceptions have surfaced in recent weeks.
“One is that we’re just here to flip the brand and sell it as quick as we can. That’s the farthest thing from my mind. We’re not here to flip the brand and sell it. We love the NWA and we’re not going away.
“No. 2 is that we’re here to charge all the licensees $250 a show. That’s false. We’re not asking for that. In fact we’re preparing licensee agreements now for everybody. It’s basically going to be the same amount of their previous membership in the NWA. We’re not even changing that at all.
“No. 3 concerns what background I have to run the NWA. I have an extensive background in wrestling. I’m an attorney fluent in Spanish, and we’ve been meeting with people from Mexico. We’ve had feelers from people contacting us from some top Japanese organizations, people contacting us from Canada, from the United Kingdom and Puerto Rico.”
“It’s a new day,” says Tharpe. “We don’t want to look behind us. We just want to move forward. We’re anxious to get the litigation behind us and get down to business.”
Present-day NWA world champ Adam Pearce is a staunch defender of the current product. Like the champions of old, he logs thousands of miles on the road, wrestling whenever and wherever defending his crown.
“I absolutely try to mirror what guys like Jack Brisco and Harley Race and Ric Flair did, by going literally everywhere I can with that belt,” says Pearce. “You can say what you want about the NWA in its current incarnation. That belt — the image of that 10 pounds of gold — is the godfather of all modern wrestling championships, and it’s a shame to me as a wrestling fan, first and foremost, that today’s young generation really has no idea what it even is. And if I can be the guy, even on a small level, to spearhead a renaissance by appearing in markets that the championship hasn’t been in in several years, I’m proud and honored to do that. I’ll be humbled.”
Pearce, 34, has done more than just talk about the title. Over the past year he brought the NWA title to markets where the championship hasn’t been defended in a number of years. Among them were Australia (first time in 33 years), St. Louis (first time in 20 years) and Des Moines, Iowa (first time in more than 25 years).
“I think I do good business and put on decent enough matches, so to be the one wearing that belt in towns where it hasn’t been in decades is extremely humbling and gratifying,” says Pearce.
The Chicago native grew up a wrestling fan and gravitated toward the NWA/Crockett Promotions product. “I was a big mark for the NWA as a kid. It’s a neat thing,” he says.
His first live event, though, was an AWA show in Milwaukee that featured Larry Zbyzko vs. Curt Hennig.
“I watched AWA on TV initially and I’ve always loved Bobby Heenan. When I was young and a little chunkier, I used to wear a one-strap singlet and people used to always assume that was for Jerry Lawler. But that was all Bobby Heenan.”
“I’d like to thank Adam Pearce for defending the title the way he has over the last several years,” says Tharpe. “Adam Peace has single-handedly taken the NWA title around the world. He’s an excellent wrestler and a great representative of the National Wrestling Alliance.”
Elliott, 28, a news photographer at WBTV in Charlotte, earlier this year released a documentary on “Boogie Woogie Man” Jimmy Valiant titled “Woo Mercy ... the Jimmy Valiant Experience.”
He got the idea of making wrestling-themed documentaries while attending an NWA fan convention three years ago in Charlotte.
“I got involved in making wrestling documentaries by chance at the 2009 NWA Legends Fanfest where I was working for the news, but met Jimmy Valiant and we became friends and we did our first documentary,” says Elliott.
His fascination with the history of the NWA led to a second DVD.
“I got involved with the NWA project by my own interest in the history of the title. A lot of people say it’s dead now, so I wanted to take a look at where it was today. So that’s when we went out and traced the history of the title from its creation to where it is now.”
Elliott, who credits director Seth Bowman with assisting him in the project, is working on two more wrestling-themed documentaries — one on Crockett Promotions and another on Ivan Koloff.
“I just love history and wrestling, and when I get to combine the two, it’s great for me,” says Elliott. “I think the history of the sport of wrestling needs to be told and told not just by WWE.”
For more information or to purchase the DVD, visit http://ellbowproductions.weebly.com.
-- Old School Championship Wrestling will present one of its biggest shows to date Sept. 16 at the Hanahan Rec Center.
“Tag Wars 6” will showcase a tag-team tournament to determine challengers for OSCW tag champs Legit (Brandon Paradise and Bradford Steele).
Top matches include former Flock members Raven and Lodi squaring off for only the second time ever; Josh Magnum vs. John Skyler in a Ladders Match for the OSCW heavyweight title; and Reginald Vanderhoff vs. Ms. Harden in a Manager vs. Manager Match.
The show begins at 5 p.m. Doors open at 4:30. Adult admission (cash at door) is $10; kids 12 and under $5. For more information, call 843-743-4800 or visit www.oscwonline.com.
Reach Mike Mooneyham at 843-937-5517 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter at @ByMikeMooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham.