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"There was wrestling before Stone Cold Steve Austin and the Rock?"

Hard to believe, but yes, the current form of pro wrestling has been around for about a century. Each generation has had its share of stars, with each star having his/her own impact on the business. But wrestling is more different today than perhaps any time in its history, so it's worth taking a look back at years past to understand why the wrestling world is what it is today.

We'll focus in this piece on the history of the World Wrestling Federation. The brainchild of the legendary McMahon family, the WWF has been responsible for most of the drastic changes in the way pro wrestling has been run.

For starters, let's look back at the way wrestling was run, well, nearly forever. Until the 1980's, wrestling was regional, meaning that each wrestling organization focused on a particular part of the country. A typical wrestler would spend a year or two in one territory; when his character started to get stale in that area, he packed up and headed for another territory. Only a handful of wrestlers, such as Gorgeous George, were nationally known.

The AWA (American Wrestling Association) was run out of Minneapolis. Run by Verne Gagne and family, the AWA once held stars like Sergeant Slaughter, Curt Hennig, Nick Bockwinkel and even Hulk Hogan. The Von Erich family ran World Class Championship Wrestling in Dallas, Texas, and other organizations were based out of Memphis, Tennessee (where current WWF announcer Jerry "the King" Lawler first found fame), Hawaii (a territory run by relatives of the Rock) Florida, Georgia and more. The NWA (National Wrestling Alliance, the major part of which became WCW) was a loose alliance of the regional organizations that ran "supercards" where hometown heroes would square off for larger championships.

And then there was the World Wrestling Federation- or, as it was originally known, the World Wide Wrestling Federation. It operated out of the Northeast and its main venue was Madison Square Garden. (Even today in "wrestling industry-speak" a wrestler can refer to "New York" meaning the WWF organization, though the company is technically based out of Connecticut). Vince McMahon, Sr., father of the now-infamous "Mr. McMahon," was the promoter, and his main star from the very beginning of the organization was Bruno Sammartino.

Sammartino was a former bodybuilder from Pittsburgh who, in his time, was unquestionably the king of the WWWF. Bruno headlined over 150 sold out WWWF cards at Madison Square Garden and holds a record for longest WWF title reign, holding the title for over eight years without losing it! In today's wrestling world of quick title changes, it's hard to imagine a full-year title reign, much less an eight-year run.

Bruno had a solid array of power moves, such as the bear hug and the backbreaker, an impressive physique, and most importantly, a strong connection with his fans. In an interview Bruno remarked that after losing the WWWF title for the first time (to Stan Stasiak), there were fans actually crying because he had lost the title. His charisma, though perhaps understated in today's terms, was undeniable.

Another WWWF wrestler who had massive star power was Andre the Giant, though of course anything involved with Andre would involve the word "massive." The French-born Andre was an impressive sight at over seven feet tall and over four hundred pounds. Yet Andre could carry himself like a much smaller man, performing some acrobatic moves that surprised and dazzled fans. But Andre's charm belied his fearsome size and strength, and his popularity made him at one time the highest-paid pro athlete in the world, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.

Vince McMahon Sr. died in 1982, and left his company to his son Vince Jr., who had been in charge of one of the smaller parts of the WWF territory. This would mean huge changes for the industry. Vince Sr. believed in cooperation between the various regional wrestling organizations. There were times, in fact, when WWF champion Bob Backlund, who reigned in the late 1970's and early 1980's, fought NWA world champion Ric Flair. Both fought AWA champions as well. Each group loaned out talent to the others from time to time when business wasn't up to par. Vince Jr., on the other hand, saw the AWA and NWA as competitors, and decided to run his cards in their parts of the country. Vince Jr.'s WWF was poised to become the first truly national wrestling organization. But one piece of the puzzle was needed, and that was a name so nationally recognizable that the company could actually sustain a national following. The name was Hulk Hogan... and the rest was history.

Hogan at the time was part of the AWA, and a part in one of Sylvester Stallone's Rocky sequels got his name known in a big way. While the Hulk was extraordinarily popular, promoter Verne Gagne refused to put the AWA title on him. (There was a famous match where Hogan apparently beat Nick Bockwinkel for the title; when the referee announced that the decision was reversed, the crowd literally almost rioted.) Gagne's rationale was that Hogan was a lot of charisma, a lot of muscles, but not much wrestling. Gagne was absolutely on the mark about Hogan's strengths and weaknesses, but he misunderstood the public's stance on the issue: if it was between Hogan and pure, technical wrestling, they wanted Hogan, and they wanted him in a big way. After being told in no uncertain terms by Gagne that the AWA belt was out of his range, the Hulk came to the WWF and almost immediately became their champion.

This title change, in January of 1984, made Hogan the focus of the WWF and gave the company the national star power they needed. Almost immediately the WWF took off on the strength of Hulkamania. Not that it was Hogan's stardom and McMahon's marketing savvy alone: as the company began to grow, other talented stars began to head to "New York" and try their hand in the WWF. Rowdy Roddy Piper, who had previously been known for brutal, bloody feuds with Ric Flair and Greg Valentine, came to town and with his clever wisecracks and brawling style, he quickly became Hogan's nemesis. Colorful managers like "Captain" Lou Albano and "Classy" Freddie Blassie brought color to otherwise humorless teams like the Hart Foundation (featuring Bret "Hitman" Hart before he became a superstar in his own right) and the Killer Bees.

This was the first time in wrestling history where "gimmicks," or the addition of nicknames and personas in addition to wrestling skills, became paramount to each athlete. While this disappointed longtime wrestling fans (Bruno Sammartino, the company's top star in the 60's, still refuses to watch modern pro wrestling because of its "sports entertainment" focus), the Hollywoodization of the WWF continued on. Vince McMahon continued to expand in new directions, harnessing the power of pay-per-view television by creating Wrestlemania, now regarded as the focal point of the WWF calendar.

Hogan's popularity was unmatched for the rest of the 80's, despite other big names like Randy "Macho Man" Savage and the Ultimate Warrior. But as the 1990's rolled around, the WWF was showing signs of stagnation. Hogan almost never lost, which meant his matches were becoming predictable. Plus, he was getting restless and began looking to Hollywood for movie roles, eventually leaving the WWF in 1993. However, no one was big enough to replace Hulk Hogan, and so business began to decline. Heroes like "American Made" Lex Luger, Diesel and Bret Hart gave it a good shot, but the WWF's "huge hero vs. evil villain" model no longer worked.

At the same time, McMahon and several other WWF employees were indicted by the federal government for various charges of distributing and selling illegal steroids. During the trial, Hulk Hogan and other wrestlers testified against McMahon and the WWF, admitting they had used steroids. The negative publicity was damaging, and combined with the large threat from Ted Turner's WCW organization, they led to the company struggling to keep from folding.

How did the WWF survive? By changing course once again, casting off "last year's model" and trying a new format. Gimmicks remained an essential part of each wrestler, but now their roles were less cartoonish. Characters like the half-human Mantaur and plumber TL Hopper were discarded, while more focus was placed on the personality of each individual wrestler. Shawn Michaels stopped brown-nosing fans and played up his wisecracking, sneaky persona to create Degeneration X. His partner, Hunter Hearst Helmsley, went from a snobby socialite to the irreverent punk known as Triple H. Athletic, fan-friendly Rocky Miavia became the self-obsessed Rock, and silent Stone Cold Steve Austin turned into the rugged, beer-drinking, cursing "toughest SOB in the WWF." Plus, the company abandoned the traditional good guy-always-fights-bad guy format, pitting everybody against everybody else, leading to some unique feuds.

And of course, this has led to the rebirth of the WWF, which, in its current form, is undoubtedly the most popular wrestling organization of all time. But it didn't grow overnight. Just as its current format will play a role in its future, the history of the WWF is part of what it has become. Who knows where it will head next.