As I understand it, professional wrestling was initially a legitimate sport. Up until around 1920, the matches were mostly competitive (though there was a healthy dose of match fixing even then.) These matches were being promoted and sanctioned by some independent sporting organization (I know there were athletic clubs in New York, LA, and Boston for example), as well as national groups like the National Boxing Association and it's spin-off National Wrestling Association.

By 1938 and the formation of the National Wrestling Alliance, the sport has become entirely worked (barring the occasional unplanned double-cross), with outcomes and title changes being predetermined and key parts of matches scripted ahead of time. These matches were promoted by privately owned regional wrestling promotions (under what was called the territory system.)

What I'm not really clear on is how that transition happened. When did it begin, and how did the promoters in the athletics organizations convince the wrestlers -- and each other -- to go along with the staged matches? Did this transition happen all at once, or was there a long stretch of time where some titles were being contended legitimately, while others were entirely predetermined?

  • 1
    Note that 'wrestling' isn't the same as 'pro wrestling'. Wrestling comes from the Greek Olympic Sport, 'pro wrestling' is more of a 'vale tudo' (anything goes) kind of gig
    – Oak
    Mar 10 '16 at 23:50
  • @Oak Your point of view has already been addressed. It is clear that the OP is asking about professional wrestling for entertainment purposes as it defected from it's competitive counterpart, more commonly known as amateur wrestling, sometime around the 1920s.
    – user527
    Mar 11 '16 at 2:04
  • @ᴍᴀsᴛᴇʀᴍɪɴᴅ_ᴇᴅ I know that. However the question is based on assuming that one transformed into the other (A becomes B) rather than having a spin off (A creating B, A and B coexisting)
    – Oak
    Mar 11 '16 at 2:09
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    Modern Olympic wrestling -- both Greco Roman and Freestyle -- comes from the same place that modern professional wrestling does: folk wrestling from the mid 1800s. Professional catch wrestling as it was practiced circa 1900 did transform into professional wrestling as we know it today, I'm specifically asking how.
    – KutuluMike
    Mar 11 '16 at 2:10
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    From Wikipedia: "Historians are unsure at what point wrestling changed from competitive catch wrestling into worked entertainment." That's not a great sign for there being a paper trail. Although the next sentence ("Those who participated felt that maintenance of a constant and complete illusion for all who were not involved was necessary to keep audience interest.") offers a clue. Additionally, performers would have been able to do high-flying stunts with little injury risk, which is always a bonus.
    – SocioMatt
    May 17 '16 at 19:06

Basically professional wrestling as we know it was pioneered by wrestler Ed "Strangler" Lewis and promoters Toots Mondt and Billy Sandow in the 1920s. They were the ones who essentially invented the "job" - Lewis was a legit shoot wrestler who could win the title at will, and Mondt and Sandow realized that having Lewis keep the belt for long periods of time would bore the fans and thus lead to smaller gates. So they had Lewis drop the belt whenever he wanted to generate interest and revenue, and he could legitimately win the title back from an opponent if he decided that would "go into business for himself" and decide to fight Lewis for real. Plus Mondt was also a legitimate wrestler who could rough up wrestlers if they didn't stick to the script.

Mondt also deserves the credit for coming up with what he called "Slam Bang Western style wrestling" which moved away from on-the-mat Greco-Roman style of wrestling to the more familiar body slams, clotheslines, suplexes and fisticuffs that we see in professional wrestling. Mondt thought that this would be a better draw than the hour-long mat wrestling matches that Gotch and Hackenschmidt were delivering twenty years before.


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