Thursday, March 16, 2023

“Hey, do you know who you are???”

Pro wrestling is a completely different world these days and in more ways than one. Not only is the in-ring product and presentation completely different from what many of us originally fell in love with, but fandom outside of the ring has changed, too. The stars who were once “larger-than-life” occasionally appear less than so these days and it isn’t always their physical appearance. It’s accessabilty. The ease of meeting your favorite stars. Heck, I’m sure some fans try and engage their wrestling heroes on a daily basis via social media. Of course, for many of us this means that obtaining the almighty autograph has become an easier task, even if those signatures don’t necessarily look as nice anymore. What’s with this signing initials trend among the young wrestlers? Anyway, let’s go back to the days when wrestling conventions and fanfests weren’t a thing, meeting your grappling heroes was a rare occasion and getting an autograph was something you remembered for years.

Keep in mind that no one is discounting the ease of meeting wrestlers of today. Technology has made it a smaller world and less and less can be kept mysterious or even secretive as the wrestling business used to be. While organized ways of hobnobbing with wrestlers weren’t as prevalent years ago, adventurous fans could find ways to do just that. Mileage would vary, especially depending on if your favorite wrestler was a “good guy” or a “bad guy,” but I know of very few wrestlers who don’t have at least a couple of fan stories out there. Getting an autograph on a program or an index card outside of a locker room or in a nearby all-night diner is probably the basis for most of the stories that we’ve all heard. Remember that fan clubs were a huge deal in the ‘60s and ‘70s. If the star or stars were particularly engaged with their fan club, organized meetings were not unheard of. Considering that this was the age of the wrestling territory, a quick meeting with fans in one of the local towns was probably music to the ears of those in the local office. This was before charity become the name of the game, so going out and becoming even more engaged with your weekly paying fans could only help.

Perhaps the biggest fan club of the time was also a governing body of sorts for those groups. It spawned what many would consider to be the original wrestling conventions. This group was the W.F.I.A. – Wrestling Fans International Association. I’ve written about the W.F.I.A. before both here and on social media. The glory years of the group were roughly the late ‘60s to the mid ‘80s. The organization (which counted Jim Cornette, Candi Devine and Juanita “Sapphire” Wright among its members) would annually partner with a wrestling territory and hold a convention in one of the cities that the promotion ran. A wrestling show, banquet and awards ceremony were among the activities. Wrestlers of both “allegiances” would attend and pictures from these events are often mind-blowing considering as how “kayfabe” was in full effect at the time. Stories from these events are still widely told by those who were there and I’ve long pushed the idea that a book chronicling the W.F.I.A. needs to be written.

The territory which seemed to promote the most fan interaction may well have been Memphis. The book “Rags, Paper and Pins: The Merchandising of Memphis Wrestling” by Jim Cornette and Mark James is not only one of my favorite wrestling books but is required reading for anyone fascinated with the early days of wrestlers outside the ring. Wrestlers actually signing photos sold at gimmick tables? No, this isn’t ‘90s indy wrestling – it’s the legendary Memphis territory! While other areas also did this I’m sure, Memphis surely deserves the most credit for pioneering it. Every so often you will hear of other areas having a wrestler appear to sign autographs before the show, but I do wonder how often they really happened as advertised? I can’t imagine it being a deal breaker back then if it didn’t take place. Nowadays grown men would be throwing fits. You can read more about this great book here and it’s still available to purchase, as well!

As we went into the ‘80s and the “Rock n’ Wrestling” era boom, appearances seemed more and more prevalent. Our favorite stars began appearing at store grand openings, car shows and pretty much anywhere that you’d see a star of another sport, actor or plain old celebrity make an appearance. It was mainstream and fans no longer had to crowd into a dank hotel ballroom or wait on a chance encounter at Denny’s after a show. Fans had the chance to schmooze with the likes of “Macho Man” Randy Savage and Miss Elizabeth at video store signings, Big John Studd at The World of Wheels car show or even sit on Sgt. Slaughter’s lap at a local electronics store. You didn’t think that I’d pass up the chance to throw one of my favorite pictures up on the blog yet again, did you? By the early ‘90s the fabled conventions run by John Arezzi began to get coverage and featured appearances that fans can only dream of today by names like Buddy Rogers, Kerry Von Erich, Woman, Lou Thesz and even The Sheik!

In modern times there are virtually endless ways to get the autographs of your favorites. WWE Axxess (which we should be discussing the beginnings of in a few weeks here…) and various conventions are obviously the biggest, but these days you can even just log into Facebook, watch a virtual signing and purchase an autographed photo right from the comfort of your chair. I’d argue that the “golden age” of wrestling conventions is over. I’d say that it ran for about five years roughly 12-15 years ago. While there are still many conventions and similar events, with so many of the legends now gone it just isn’t the same. That era is a book in itself and I know who the author will be. Heatseeking missiles will be incoming for me, no doubt.

People have often asked me to write more about meet and greets, conventions and other similar entities. I don’t  do it often, but when I do it’s fun to integrate it with advertisements for such things which are now pieces of memorabilia all their own. I can also say that it’s a pleasure when wrestling, maybe more than any other sport, has so many stars who truly appreciate their fans. There are some bad apples as in any bunch, but there have been countless times where I’ve seen joy on wrestlers faces when hearing stories, looking at old memorabilia or just being thanked for their work. Even for people who are used to thousands of fans cheering for them, the words of just one person can mean the world. I also think that wrestlers can often relate to their fans better than any other kind of celebrity. After all, we’re all just crazy people caught up in the same crazy world of professional wrestling.

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