When everything is a work, when everyone is well versed in putting on a front, when the business revolves around falsity, how do you manage the players therein?
How do you make sure that in planning the purposeful falsities the ability to work and put on a front doesn’t spill into the business, the way people present themselves and their intentions?
Managing and “booking” a wrestling promotion is a mighty task in this regard, one made difficult by the inherent deception of the entertainment itself. Perhaps that is why the position has evolved to one performed by committee, by a team of writers and former wrestlers and insiders hired “to book.”
Go figure then that this task in the history of pro wrestling was generally a one-man position: the booker. The booker was responsible for laying out storylines, both the long-term arcs and the on-the-fly developments that emerge in response to fan reaction, for the promotion. To those ends, the booker had to be creative, understand each wrestler’s abilities, understand trends in the business, and think about future developments for characters and stories if he was to do the job successfully for any length of time.
Because of the nature of the job, especially the notion of long term planning, the history of wrestling bookers is filled with those who booked the person they could trust the most, themselves, or those closest to them (often their sons), to carry storylines and major championships.
Others have, like player-managers in pro sports, proven so masterful at their in-ring craft and awareness for the business, they were entrusted to book the entire promotion from their spot on the wrestling roster.
Beyond the owners and wrestlers themselves, others have managed to move from fan to industry insider to well-regarded booker.
The Families: the Owner-Bookers
Before the WWE emerged as pro wrestling’s singular national brand in the early 2000s, before the Monday Night Wars of the 1990s that saw two and three rival national promotions vying for audience attention, there were the territories. The WWE itself was the New York regional territory, owned and operated as always by the McMahon family. And to some degree or another, be it senior or junior, Vince McMahon has always been its “head booker.”
A number of other great families and owners ran and booked their promotions for years with success.
Perhaps most known of these is Verne Gagne, the owner, wrestler, and booker for the American Wrestling Association (AWA) out of Minneapolis. Gagne booked himself as champ for the first 20 or so years of the promotion, then booked steadfast and down to earth Nick Bockwinkle to reign as his champion for another couple of decades. Verne’s own son Greg was never as widely regarded and Bockwinkle proved loyal to Gagne, eschewing other opportunities in wrestling time and again to stay in Minneapolis (Greg was booked by Verne to win two AWA tag title and two AWA television title championships). Bockwinkle almost lost the belt to a young Hulk Hogan but that was reversed in a “Dusty-finish” (more on that later) and he lost it instead to an up and coming Curt Henning (aka, Mr. Perfect).
Gagne ruled over the AWA until its eventual sell to the WWF from the 1950s through the early 1990s. While he is remembered as an early rebel against the national politics of the National Wrestling Alliance and an innovative promoter for pushing into new TV territory and pop culture crossovers, he is just as remembered for his tight-fistedness and brutal treatment of those that came up wrestling under his promotion. No shortage of wresters, from Ric Flair to Ricky Steamboat to the Iron Sheik, share stories of his brutal training regiment requirements and shady dealings to keep from paying wrestlers (or extorting extra money from them: he lost Hulk Hogan to the WWF in 1983 because he wanted more of Hogan’s t-shirt money).
Fritz von Erich maintained a similar stronghold in Dallas, Texas, as owner and long-time booker of what would become World Class Championship Wrestling from the 1960s through the early 1990s. There he booked himself to win major titles including the NWA American Heavyweight Title, the NWA Brass Knuckles Title, the NWA Texas Heavyweight Championship and the NWA United States Heavyweight Championship (Texas Version) a combined 29 times. When he retired, he made it a family tradition, as each of his six sons took up pro wrestling. Time and again, talented wrestlers left the Dallas promotion for better opportunities, fearing that they could not move up the ranks because too many von Erichs held the top spots.
They weren’t wrong: over the years, the von Erich boys were booked for an astounding 87 major championships in World Class (David had 15, Kevin had 30, Kerry had 37, and Mike had 5). On the other hand, WCCW found great success, broadcasting the first nationally televised wrestling show with the Christian Broadcasting Network and making major innovations in presentation, from wrestlers’ entrance music to lighting to more cameras to capture action directly in the ring and at ringside (instead of zoomed from afar). Despite this, the von Erich story is completely awash in tragedy. Within a 10 year period, from 1983 to 1993, the family would unravel. David von Erich, the eldest and a challenger to Ric Flair then for the NWA World Title, died in Tokyo suddenly in 1983. One by one, Mike, Chris, and Kerry von Erich (arguably the most known because of his Texas Tornado run in the WWF) committed suicide. With Fritz now passed, Kevin von Erich is the sole survivor of the wrestling dynasty that made up WCCW, though his sons are now pro wrestlers as well.
Fritz and Verne weren’t the only promoters booking to ensure personal success for themselves and their families in the ring. Ed Farhat, the original Sheik, was the owner and booker of Big Time Wrestling in Detroit from the 60s into the 80s, and booked himself as NWA United States Heavyweight Champion (Detroit version) twelve times. Eddie and Mike Graham, father and son wrestlers and promoters in Florida for Florida Championship Wrestling, both served as bookers of the Florida territory for an extended period from the 60s through the late 80s. They booked themselves into 46 major championship reigns, including one run as the father-son NWA Florida Tag Team Champions (like the von Erichs, their story ends in tragedy, father and son both shooting themselves after battles with substance and depression).
Dory Funk Sr. oversaw the NWA Western State Sports promotion from Amarillo, Texas and booked himself as NWA North American Heavyweight Champ (Amarillo version) 17 times. When he retired, he saw to the quick success of his sons in the promotion, Dory Jr. and Terry. They were first multi-time tag team champs, booked to win the NWA World and International Tag Titles four times. Dory Sr. of course later lobbied hard as part of the NWA national committee to book both of his sons as NWA World champ. Stu Hart booked two major promotions in Canada, Big Time Wrestling then, more famously, Stampede Wrestling, for over thirty years from the early 1950s through the early 1980s. The Hart family story is well documented, and, like the other owner-promoter families on the list, their dad ensured early success. The Hart boys won a combined 47 championships in Stampede Wrestling: Bret nabbed 14, Keith 11, Bruce 16, Owen 4, and Dean 2. Jerry Jarrett was the longtime owner and booker in Memphis, overseeing the rise of his son in the Continental Wrestling Association in the 1980s where Jeff was booked for 12 major title runs, and continued the practice booking Jeff for another 27 titles in his United States Wrestling Association (USWA) in the late 80s and early 90s.
Of course, the McMahons have reigned supreme over all for three generations. Vince Sr. took on the boxing and wrestling promoting of his father, Jesse, and Vincent K. McMahon bought out his father in the early 80s. While the McMahons haven’t oft found themselves in the ring over the past twenty-plus years, unlike the previous wrestling promoting families mentioned, none were full time workers in the ring. And, unlike many of the early territories, McMahon Jr. has often turned to designated hitters, utility players, so to speak, to help book the biggest wrestling promotion of them all.
The Utility Players
A number of smaller territory guys have found their way into booking the big time over the years. And some of those are pretty interesting stories from a fan’s perspective because several started not as wresters or promoters themselves, but just as hardcore, lifelong wrestling fans. Take Jim Cornette or Paul Heyman, both guys who donned several hats, starting as fans, running their own newsletters and promotion posters, becoming managers with major promotion (WCW), and eventually, founding their own (now defunct) brands. After finding regional success with his Smokey Mountain Wrestling, where he championed an old school southern style well into the 90s, Cornette was brought in by McMahon in the mid 90s as a manager and to work on the “booking committee.”
There he worked on and off, epically clashing with Vince Russo (a super-fan DJ turned wrestling writer) as he won’t hesitate to voice in any podcast or documentary made, through the Attitude Era before working with TNA/Impact in the 2000s (do a quick Google search to see the latest hot water he landed in with NWA recently). Paul Heyman likewise launched the only brand to rival the WWF and WCW in the 1990s, ECW, and was also identified by McMahon as another brilliant mind for the business to put on his booking team as the 90s gave way to the 2000s (and he continues there as creative and mouthpiece for Brock Lesnar, of course).
This practice was old hat by the time one time fans Russo and Heyman and Cornette were brought in by McMahon in the 90s. As opposed to some of the old school territory practices, McMahon always leaned toward a compartmentalised or team directed creative staff over the one-man productions. He inherited the great wrestling mind, Jim Barnett, a flamboyant promoter who’d found success in Chicago, Detroit and Australia, from his father and relied on his knowledge of the business for creative through the mid 1980s. Barnett had also maintained an alliance with what would become McMahon’s biggest challenger in the 80s and the eventual WCW promotion, Crockett Promotions in Carolina run by the Crockett family. When Vince Jr. found out Barnett had been giving inside information to Jim Crockett by phone, he fired him. After a failed suicide by pill attempt, Barnett landed in WCW and worked there booking into the mid 90s.
The WCW would bring in a myriad of booking utility men who served at every level of the industry in a carousel of hiring and firings until landing on Eric Bischoff in the mid-90s: Cowboy Bill Watts, the first booker to dream up weekly episodic wrestling and Ole Anderson, long time wrestler and old schooler in the business who hated wrestling media. Remember the Red Rooster, Terry Taylor, the guy who lost out on the Mr. Perfect gimmick Curt Henning? The guy who had a red mohawk and pecked around the pay per view rings of the WWF at the tail end of the Hulkamania era? Yea, even he got put on the WCW creative team (and survived in the position through Bischoff’s tenure).
Meanwhile, Vince McMahon has relied on one, above all other, to help book the WWF/E over the years: Pat Patterson. Patterson, perhaps the most accomplished gay athlete of his day among a myriad of accomplishments, including serving as the first Intercontinental Champ in the WWF, has been behind the scenes booking in some capacity for the WWF since his retirement from the ring. To his accomplishments, you can add the creation and execution of the yearly Royal Rumble match. Additionally, he staged the epic, epic face versus face battle of Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior at Wrestlemania VI, getting a superb in-ring performance out of both (no small feat if you have seen the barf-fest Hogan and Warrior put on at Halloween Havoc 1998 in their WCW rematch). While McMahon and Patterson recently made headlines for less than stellar reasons (reportedly drunkenly crashing Rocky Johnson’s funeral), the pair have survived scandal after scandal before to remain as perhaps the most longstanding creative force in the history of the industry (some, sadly, have begun to report Patterson’s mental health may be declining).
While some fans may dream of Cornette or Heyman paths to wrestling creative control—at least half the wrestling boards I see online are eaten up with “this is how I would have booked it” posts—I find the most compelling bookers in the history of business to be the iconic wrestlers themselves.
In Japan, the longest standing and most well-known bookers in the game have always been some of the sport’s most famed in-ring performers as well: Giant Baba, Antonio Inoki, Misawa, and Riki Choshu. Like the great families mentioned above, these had significant stakes in the ownership of the promotions themselves.
Other greats were bookers without ever actually owning the show. Like Watts and Taylor mentioned above (both respected and accomplished wrestlers in their own right by neither nationally famously so), wrestling icons Dusty Rhodes and Ric Flair and even Bruiser Brody found themselves as head bookers in their respective promotions.
Rhodes was always fascinated with the production of wrestling beyond the ring. In countless interviews and documentaries and recantations, you can hear his love of Hollywood and the movie industry (no doubt, where Dustin Rhodes took some inspiration for the Goldust character). He was just as interested in the camera work and show in wrestling. In his early days in Florida, he was often involved with booking angles and dreaming up gimmick matches. When he hit the grander stage with WCW in the late 80s, he continued to push new, imaginative productions for wrestling. Most famously, he developed the War Games style match, inspired by Mad Max and other Thunderdome style movies. More frustratingly, the “Dusty Finish” has been named in his honor, whereby a wrestler seems to win a title (usually because of a replacement ref coming in to replace one knocked out), only to be later disqualified or stripped of the title at a later date by the promotion because of some earlier antics in the match, a device Dusty employed often, even in his own matches. Rhodes certainly frustrated other wrestlers at the time, booking himself to go over in main events and pairing himself with the hottest up and coming faces in matches time and again.
Dusty’s greatest rival and wrestling legend in his own, Ric Flair, was foisted to the position of head booker of WCW in the days between the early turnover and Eric Bischoff coming in (and continued to serve in the capacity under Bischoff into 1995). Reading Flair’s biography, however, suggests a much different experience than Dusty with the book. While Dusty relished in the position and often used it to put himself over, Flair found himself generally booking himself to job to appease all the egos in the locker room. He says he quit/was fired from the position in 1995 when he finally refused to stop continuously jobbing to WWF imports Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage which Flair had graciously done sine the pair came into WCW in 1994.
Lesser known as a booker but no less an icon in the industry, Bruiser Brody was always seen as smarter than the average wrestler. He was a former sports writer turned in-ring performer, and, if Jim Ross is to be believed, was not just college-educated, but generally the smartest man in any locker room. When Fritz von Erich was finally willing to relinquish some control in his Dallas promotion in the mid 1980s, Brody was turned to for a while to be the creative force behind WCCW. While his brains no doubt helped in him in the position, it also caused a great deal of frustration for Brody in trying to manage wrestlers to go along. Ironically, Brody is most remembered for arguing with and not going along with bookers over the years. Infamously, it led to his stabbing in a Puerto Rico locker room by booker/wrestler Jose Gonazlez (aka Invader #1) after an argument ensued.
Kevin Sullivan deserves a special mention somewhere in here for his role in WCW (and its demise). A long time wrestler from the early 70s, Sullivan was still going strong into the late 90s in WCW. By then, like fellow Florida wrestling breakout Dusty Rhodes, he was at times given the book and put in charge of creative control. Unfortunately, his tenure will be remembered mostly for his terrible, terrible Dungeon of Doom storyline of the mid-90s, and as the guy who forced Benoit and Guerrero and Malenko and Saturn to all defect from WCW to WWF at once when he was put in charge of the book again in the late 90s (tensions between Sullivan and Benoit obvious at the time and in retrospect). Like the other wrestling greats on this list, his booking time is remembered as iffy, at best.
You can find me on Twitter @gritvanwinkle.