Was a time being a seven-time World Heavy Wrestling Champion like Handsome Harley Race was a big deal…
Less so these days since the WWE wiped out the NWA and other regional wrestling circuits around the country. For example, the current WWE world champ is a 210 pound dude named Daniel Bryan who rather unceremoniously won the belt minutes after Wichita refugee Big Show took it from fellow behemoth Mark Henry.
These days, wrestling is about two things; ridiculously improbable storylines and high risk acrobatics.
"Actually the belts aren’t that important today," says retired promoter Jon Lunkwicz. "If you look at one of the most important wrestlers today, it’s John Cena, and he hasn’t been a champion for awhile."
Cena wrestles "The Big Red Monster" Kane in one of two headline matches Monday at the Sprint Center.
"The scripts have become as important as the matches," Lunkwicz says.
Thanks for that to WWE honcho Vince McMahon – the son of legendary World Wide Wrestling Federation promoter Vincent McMahon. The younger McMahon is credited with stealing Hulk Hogan from another circuit and playing all sorts of silly, in-ring charicatures of himself that continue to this day.
"Vince was evil, he was playing himself," Lunkwicz says. "He did a lot of bad things to wrestlers."
The other major difference in the WWE today has to do with the death-defying, high-flying stunts that have resulted in shorter career spans, Lunkwicz says.
Former longtime National Wrestling Alliance champ Lou Thesz, for example, wrestled from 1932 when he was 15 years-old until his retirement in December of 1990 at age 73!
That’s 58 years, for crying out loud. No way Thesz could have lasted that long flying upside down and sideways in and out of the ring onto the floor and into tables and chairs the way today’s WWE stars do.
"Well, they picked all that up from the Mexicans," Lunkwicz says. "Mexican wrestlers are called ‘luchadores’ and they did a lot of somersaults off the ropes and the American wrestlers picked that up."
The result being an endless parade of new faces and career-ending injuries.
"Take The Edge," Lunkwicz says. "He retired this year and he wasn’t that old – he was in his mid-30s. he had to have his neck fused. He was out of wrestling a year or so after he was injured and he came back, but he just couldn’t do it anymore.
"They (still) come back – like The Rock, he’s going to wrestle at Wrestlemania this year – but they don’t wrestle full time anymore. It’s a lot more dangerous and a lot more risky."
The Rock will turn 40 in May.
"He’s probably healthier now because when you think about it, he’s been out of wrestling for 10 years," Lunkwicz says. "But he doesn’t wrestle weekly anymore. Like Kane, you don’t really see him wrestle much anymore. You see him come out and threaten people. And his brother The Undertaker wrestles just a couple times a year, like at Wrestlemania. And he hasn’t been defeated yet at Wrestlemania – he has a stretch there of like 25-0."
By and larges – behemoths aside, the wrestlers of today are far more buff than the stars of yesteryear, like Race and deceased local star Rufus R, Jones pictured at right.
There’s a reason Kane, 45 – who wrestles Cena Monday at Sprint – and The Undertaker, 47, are still in the game.
"They didn’t have to do the dangerous moves," Lunkwicz says. "They didn’t have to do the moves that could cause damage to their spine and neck. They didn’t have to do the high-flying stuff."
That’s because Kane wrestles at a billed weight of 323 and his brother The Undertaker at 299.
"The big thing was in the old days, you had the occasional big guy like Ernie "The Cat" Ladd and Andre the Giant and the matches were more actual wrestling and less acrobatic moves," Lunkwicz says. "We had a match even at the Beamont Club."
With the weekly television matches and pay-per-views like Sunday’s WWE Royal Rumble going for $44.99, do many of today’s stars retire rich before their shortened careers get the better of them?
"It’s kind of like everything," Lunkwicz says. "It’s the upper 5 to 10 percent. First of all, the majority of them don’t have long-term contracts. That’s why you see guys come and go."
Like former WWE star Chris Jericho who is slated to appear Monday at Sprint.
"He was one of the superstars and he dropped out over a conflict with Vince McMahon, over how much he should be paid" Lunkwicz says. "And he tried to make it in a rock band, but just never did anything."
The 41 year-old Jericho was lead singer in the heavy metal band Fozzy.
Also on hand Monday, in one of the main events, is a wrestler known as The Miz.
"The Miz is an obnoxious idiot who’s catch phrase is, ‘I’m awesome,’ " Lunkwicz says. "But there’s nothing very interesting about him. C.M. Punk is interesting because he’s pretty small and he acts like he’s on the outside, but if he was an outsider, he wouldn’t be in the WWE."
And so it goes, in the WWE six-days-a-week, high risk world of wrestling entertainment.