Last week 498 people attended the birth of "professional collegiate wrestling" in a high-school gym in Allentown, Pa. The idea was to present 20 ex-college stars, half of them former NCAA champions, in an honest, no-kidding, true-blue tournament. No dwarfs, perfumed locks, tag teams, masked villains or Argentina Rocca dropkicks (in which the kickee stands stock still, jaw extended, for what has got to be a minute). In pro wrestling lingo, the contestants would be "shooting" rather than "working."
A new outfit called the National Wrestling Confederation put on the show and it was a pretty good one, but the gate for the afternoon and evening sessions was only $2,720, just about equal to Bruno Sammartino's daily meal allowance. The NWC dropped around $8,000.
One unforeseen difficulty, according to the promoter, New Yorker Andy Fitch, 33, a former 115-pound NCAA champion at Yale, was that the Pennsylvania trout season opened the day of the tournament and thousands of wrestling fans were ostensibly standing in babbling brooks. But that may have been the least of his problems. Fitch hadn't even been able to get the name he wanted for his organization. "Association" can only be used by nonprofit groups in New York, he was told. "Alliance" and a lot of other catchy words were taken, so he had to settle for "Confederation." Lehigh University and East Stroudsburg State wouldn't let their gyms be used, so Fitch settled for Rockne Hall, Central Catholic High. At least he was in the Lehigh Valley, one of the hotbeds of wrestling in the U.S.
Then came complying with the regulations of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission. Fitch had to put up a $3,000 performance bond, $50 for a promoter's license, $200 for wrestlers' licenses, $75 for referees' licenses and $75 for a commission-approved doctor. The refs and the wrestlers also had to be fingerprinted by the state police.
All this plus prize money, rent, insurance, about $2,700 in transportation, meal money, ticket and program printing and $600 in phone calls pushed the nut up to $11,000.
Then there were the injuries. Doug Blubaugh, a 1960 Olympic champion, got hurt for the first time since winning his gold medal, and the best drawing card was gone. His first replacement hurt an ankle, the second hurt a knee. Ex-NCAA champ Wayne Boyd from Temple University hurt an elbow. Fitch made him the announcer ($15 license fee).
More. "The mail strike caught us the precise day we were about to send out the first big publicity release," said Fitch. "For more than a week we were immobilized, reduced to telephone communication with the wrestlers and coaches, and no communication at all with prospective spectators." He advertised in Lehigh Valley newspapers. The Bethlehem Globe-Times ran the ad at the bottom of a page filled almost entirely with suggested trout-fishing sites.
Henry Littlefield, NWC vice president and an assistant dean at Amherst, was convinced that the Mafia, or whoever was behind phony pro wrestling, would strongly disapprove of the Allentown venture. He decided to call up a Midwest promoter he had once met and ask him to assure the higher-ups that the NWC was out to capture a different sort of audience. It would not be a rival. Much less so, in fact, than the Roller Derby.
"Look, we grossed $40,000 last night," the promoter told Littlefield. "Monday will be slow and we'll gross $20,000. Henry, you don't worry us."
Nevertheless, Andy, Henry and their associates—make that confederates—were convinced that legit pro wrestling using modified college rules had potential. "It's one of the fastest-growing high-school and college sports in the country," said Fitch. "There are more than a quarter of a million participants, all with parents, roommates, friends and girl friends. Many great wrestlers go into coaching as the only way to earn a living from their skills. There is no reason young coaches should not be able to remain active competitors.
"By the fall of 1971, hopefully, we will organize a National Wrestling League along the lines of the NFL, NBA and NHL, with teams in six or eight cities. Competition would be for a national team championship, with a tournament at the end of the season to determine individual national champions.
"The success of this tournament will breed other tournaments, and with them more and bigger prizes. And top wrestlers who eventually sign with teams will be able to earn a fair living like most pro athletes."
The tournament did turn out to be successful as far as entertainment went. A gymnasium full of noisy rooters would have made it more successful. So would a ring bigger than 28 feet in diameter—it was too easy for a man in trouble to get out of the circle and stop the action. The Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission, while insisting on its 5% of the gross, waived the requirement for ring ropes. Maybe it shouldn't have.
The afternoon preliminary bouts provided some surprises. One of them was that the four heavyweights wrestled first. Normally they go last. "All my life I've wanted to see the heavyweights go first," said Fitch, who, at 5'4", wouldn't have to bend over to put a hammerlock on a mouse.
Heavyweight Bill Smith, 41, 1952 Olympic gold-medal winner, was defeated 3-0 by Rich Schumacher out of East Stroudsburg. Three-time NCAA champ Larry Hayes from Jesup, Iowa, was pinned by Adam Waltz, the wrestling coach at Renovo (Pa.) High. Two-time NCAA champ Dave Auble of Ithaca, N.Y., wrestling in the 135-pound class, lost in overtime to Bob Guzzo of Canton, N.Y.
Only about 300 people were in the stands for the afternoon bouts. Many had complained that $8 was too much to pay for the two sessions (it was $6 for students and coaches). At first the NWC insisted that fans who only wanted to come Saturday night still had to pay full price. That policy was changed when the early ticket-sale figures came in. Enthusiastic high-school coaches who had thought they could peddle 20 or 30 tickets came to Fitch's room and sheepishly admitted they had sold two.
"It's a shame to have this quality card wrestling before a half-empty house," said Fitch. "I wish I didn't have to keep writing checks so I could watch the bouts myself."
"Other than the Olympic Trials, a field like this has never been assembled before," said Lehigh Coach Thad Turner.
Most of the finals were excellent. In the 150-pound class, Bill Stuart, a medical student at the University of Maryland, wrestled even with Waltz for two periods, then tore him up in the third, 12-1. In the 165-pound class, where all four men were ex-NCAA champions, Attorney Greg Ruth of Norman, Okla. beat Bob Kopinsky, the plebe coach at Navy, 10-4. The best match of all was between Guzzo and Harvard Assistant Coach Bob Fehrs in the 135-pound class. They finished the third period tied 6-6, Fehrs winning in overtime 4-1.
When he was at Michigan, Fehrs was runner-up three times in the NCAA championships. Mike Caruso, who beat him each time, was a spectator Saturday, having turned down an invitation to participate.
So it was fun, but will it replace Bobo Brazil? Not for a long time, and probably never as a team sport. With lower prices, better gymnasiums, larger rings and more experienced promoters, and using a tournament format, it might do well in wrestling-happy places like Waterloo, Iowa, Oklahoma City and Bethlehem, Pa., then, perhaps, catch on in bigger cities.
Because so few people were anxious to "be on hand for the birth of real professional wrestling," Fitch had to chop the prize money from $1,000 to $500 for first, $500 to $250 for second and $250 to $100 for third. Sportade (an imitator of Gatorade) donated $500 for the outstanding-wrestler award. This was won by Fehrs, who thus went back to Harvard with $1,000, which was $1,000 more than he had ever made wrestling. For that matter, it may well be the only $1,000 he'll ever make wrestling in or out of the trout season, with mail delivery twice a day and with a free double truck ad in the Bethlehem Globe-Times.