The world of professional wrestling got its start in the 1800s, but the genesis of what we see today in the world of sports entertainment has its origins in the 1920s, when Ed "Strangler" Lewis, Toots Mondt and Billy Sandow got together to form the Gold Dust Trio.
According to the book "WWE Legends," this triumvirate developed what Mondt called the "Slam Bang Western Wrestling" style, moving beyond exhibitions in the ring that were presented like any other kind of fight and incorporating storylines into pro wrestling in a way that hadn't been done before.
In essence, the Gold Dust Trio was the industry's first entity to become true masters of the psychological techniques of "getting over" with the crowd. They used those methods to generate the desired reactions from the audience and eventually utilized them to dominate the industry for nearly a decade.
This opening edition of the "Getting Over" series aims to detail the psychological rules that the world of pro wrestling has developed in the nearly 100 years since the inception of the Gold Dust Trio; elements that remain the same, or similar, to how they were at the inception of the style, and things that have changed dramatically in the modern era.
Before getting into the specifics of these rules, however, it helps to note the one rule that trumps all others.
Rule No. 1: Drawing a paying audience is always the primary goal for any promotion
This is the prime directive of pro wrestling. Everything that's ever done in the wrestling business and everyone who's involved, from promoters to announcers to main eventers to the most inexperienced enhancement talent, is there to get an audience to spend money. That applies to anything that brings in a steady cashflow, including house shows, pay-per-views, network subscriptions and merchandise.
This rule is so ingrained into the fabric of pro wrestling that WWE Hall of Famer Gorilla Monsoon, one of the most venerated voices in history and for whom the most prominent backstage position was named, once said that if anyone was in this business for any reason other than to make money, he was a fool.
It's as straightforward a rule as you'll see on this list, and it trumps every other entry that will follow to such a degree that a subset is necessary.
Rule No. 1A: Every rule can be broken if it leads to drawing a paying audience.
One of the strengths of Rule No. 1 is that it allows all of the other rules that will follow to be modified whenever circumstances dictate. It's easy to say that should be a straightforward rule, but as we'll see in future columns and looking back on the past, applying the rules too rigidly can be counter-productive.
For example, take The New Day, a faction that went from being a struggling, overproduced heel tag team to the most popular faction in the WWE by Wrestlemania 32.
Less than a year ago, we had to damn near beg for a single item on shop. This Wrestlemania week, The New Day was #1 in Merch sales.
- ShinigamE (@WWEBigE) April 18, 2016
They did it by breaking past many of the stereotypical roles that preceded them in wrestling. They also broke the mold of how factions work.
Before The New Day, a faction needed to have a leader. The early incarnations of The Four Horsemen had Ric Flair, Arn Anderson, Ole Anderson, Tully Blanchard, Barry Windham and J.J. Dillon, who were six of the most accomplished workers of their generation. Yet, Blanchard himself said, "the credibility that Flair being part of an organization, instead of always being the world champion and staying off by himself, elevated us and made us the elite gang of professional wrestling." Had the other members of The Four Horsemen not been associated with Flair, they would have been a strong faction in the NWA, but almost certainly wouldn't have reached the legendary status they now hold today.
The same rule applied to D-Generation X. Road Dogg and Billy Gunn had one of the most memorable rings intros of all time, and Chyna was the Ninth Wonder of the World, but there is zero doubt that as Triple H and Shawn Michaels went, so went DX. That's why Triple H and Michaels were able to very successfully reform the group a few years later. They were so integral to DX that they didn't even need the others to get the faction over.
Having a single leader simply isn't The New Day's M.O. As the aforementioned article in The Undefeated noted, Kofi Kingston, Big E and Xavier Woods are real-life best friends who view the group in an egalitarian way. They even adopted the classic Freebird rule that says if one of them wins a title, be it a tag-team title or individual title, that any of them are able to defend that title in a match. The group would not be the same without any one of them, but assigning an individual member of the group to the role of team leader just goes against what The New Day is all about. The crowd can sense the friendship between the three, and it's part of why The New Day's "Power of Positivity" message gets over and allows this team to break the faction leader rule.
The rule-breaking exception even works when it comes to putting an undersized wrestler over as the main-event draw, and it's not just a modern invention, as you might otherwise believe.
One of the first instances of this occurred with an early 20th century superstar who might have been one of the greatest babyfaces of all time. Depending on which source you believe, Jim Londos was between 5-foot-6 and 5-foot-8 and weighed roughly 200 pounds. This was undersized for his era, but it didn't keep Londos from being booked to win programs against powerhouses such as Bronko Nagurski. Yes, that Bronko Nagurski, the former Chicago Bears great who loomed head and shoulders above most NFL players and thus was one of the true giants of professional football. Having Londos beat Nagurski with an airplane spin might have strained credulity, but this duo pulled off that finish during a 1938 world title switch.
Londos got that kind of push for one simple reason: He was able to sell tickets at an awe-inspiring pace. To get an idea of just how incredible a draw Londos was, consider this: Pro wrestling historian Matt Farmer, who is noted for his deep-dive research into wrestling attendance figures, has determined that in 1931, Londos drew an audience of 10,000 or more on 31 occasions, a single-year rate that far exceeded anything anyone had done before this. This was one of many incredible gate figures Londos had during his career, most of which occurred during the heights of The Great Depression.
This type of thing has happened at various points in the world of wrestling, and the clearest modern examples, albeit to a different extent, involve Daniel Bryan and C.M. Punk. They're undersized wrestlers who overcame initial organizational resistance to putting them over and eventually become true main-event stars and big-money assets.
These examples, from the earliest days of professional wrestling through the modern era, show that if a wrestler can draw a paying audience, eventually any and all of the rules of the business can be bent or fully ignored in the effort to give that audience what it wants. As we flesh out this list of rules in the future, you'll see just how much precedent and conventional thinking each man overcame to reach that point.