By Tim Hornbaker
In today’s marketplace, there are many constants that never really change, and routines
wrestling fans have grown to expect. Matches shown on television are usually relatively
short, feature a number of high spots, bumps, and popular finishing maneuvers that get
people cheering, and are designed to further the various feuds. The regular storylines in
the WWE or TNA are supposed to be somewhat consistent, and the more dramatic the
promos and scenarios are, the higher the buy-rates. For the upcoming WrestleMania
show in 2012, the WWE is building up a number of key match-ups with John Cena
against The Rock as the centerpiece of attraction.
Decades ago, the business was not fueled by a central company calling the shots for a
unit of contracted employees. Wrestling was much more unorganized, and the wrestlers
themselves were independent contractors constantly traveling the circuit looking for
matches. In the era of the National Wrestling Alliance when there were dozens and
dozens of established territories, there was plenty of work for grapplers of all shapes and
sizes. Still, there were few contract deals between promoters and wrestlers, and most
agreements were sealed by handshakes.
Wrestlers who advanced up the ladder to one of the board sponsored NWA
championships did sign contracts, and put up thousands of dollars as a guarantee they
wouldn’t double-cross the organization by walking out on the Alliance or purposefully
losing a title match to an opponent not approved by the board of directors.
All other matches and regionally acknowledged championship affairs were fair game, but
if a wrestler wanted to ensure future work – anywhere on the NWA circuit – they had to
play ball by the established rules. Shoot matches, meaning genuinely contested
competitions, on a whim were not authorized. And if they did occur, the wrestler who
decided to go rogue was going to hit the road with a reputation of an outlaw, and find it
difficult to gain matches elsewhere. The members of the NWA routinely told each other
about insubordinate grapplers and which ones to avoid at all costs.
So that meant fierce collegiate champions with all the skills and strength in the world had
to lay down when told, even to inferior opponents. There were no other options. That
was how professional wrestling was conducted.
Instead of highly competitive bouts between comparable talents or long, drawn out shoot
matches that bored audiences, contests were full of “pre-arranged acts,” as one 1932
Portland newspaper called them. There was a design to the matches that excited
audiences and kept people coming back to arenas week after week. If a show promised
a sixty-minute main event, the headline affair was likely to go long, giving the people
something they’d enjoy. Why would promoters want to ruin their own businesses by
staging unattractive matches between opponents scared to go to the center of the ring
because of the threat of a hooker possibly breaking their leg with a submission hold.
Shoot matches have happened on occasion in wrestling history, and each incident was
unique to itself. There were times when a hooker pounced on a lesser talent and twisted
them into knots, or even knocked them out with legit punches. A match could last literally
a couple minutes in this instance with absolutely no thought given to the people in the
audience, who paid for a night’s entertainment. And in those days, there weren’t 7-8
bouts on a card, but maybe three or four, and if the main event went a few minutes, what
wrestling fan in their right mind was going to be excited about the next show. A wrestler
was killing the town that way.
In 1923, when “Tigerman” John Pesek, a hooker beyond reproach, battled Olympian Nat
Pendleton in a shoot match in Boston, Pesek won the bout in two-straight falls. But the
bout went over 35-minutes and the 3,000 fans at the Grand Opera House were not
witness to a hideous scene that ultimately crippled the wrestling industry in the city. The
two men were both talented, but Pesek had the skills to maim ring rivals through endless
submission holds. It is very likely Pesek either held back or worked moves with
Pendleton, then double-crossed his foe in the finish. At the end of the night, Pendleton
suffered torn ligaments, and his undefeated record now had a blemish.
Shoot matches could also last hours. On July 4, 1916, World Heavyweight titleholder
Joe Stecher defended his championship against Ed “Strangler” Lewis in what was billed
as a bout between “possibly the two greatest athletes in the world today.” An estimated
20,000 fans were at the Fairgrounds in Omaha to see the bout, and interest in the match
was worldwide. The paying audience expected a struggle for the ages – with one man
walking away the victor.
What they got instead was a match that nearly ruined professional wrestling, not only in
Omaha, but across the Midwest. Sports-writers in important cities along the east and
west coasts added to the calamity by negatively remarking about it by way of their
Lewis and Stecher wrestled a immensely slow and colorless draw lasting a reported five
hours. Because of the nature of the shoot match, neither grappler wanted to put
themselves in a vulnerable position, and the two danced around the ring for a majority of
the bout. Spectators were disgusted by the gruesome scene and gamblers lost small
(and sometimes large) fortunes. The Omaha World Herald, which was clearly in Stecher’
s corner, as he was from nearby Dodge, blamed the lack of excitement squarely on the
shoulders of Lewis. A writer for the paper remarked that, “It was impossible for Stecher to
throw Lewis,” because he was a “wrestler, not a foot racer.” Fans littered the ring with
seat cushions and talk of the disaster circulated the world.
The wrestlers had to repair their damaged reputations and earn back the trust of fans by
delivering more enjoyable performances – which both did in the years that followed. But
the lack of agreement before the match and the missing prearranged spots to keep the
audience’s interest were not handled properly, thus, it failed on all accounts. Imagine
had they settled on a finish, giving one or the other a victory, and built toward a high-
interest rematch. They would’ve doubled or tripled their money.
No one walked away unscathed, and it was a crucial lesson for those involved, learned
the hard way.
Another notable shoot match happened in 1954.
Women’s wrestling was mostly a stable industry under the management of Billy Wolfe
and world champion Mildred Burke until the early 1950s. That’s not saying there wasn’t
plenty of controversy and shenanigans, mostly on Wolfe’s part, but the business end was
running smoothly and generating lots of cash. Although Burke and Wolfe were married,
they were not a normal couple, and Burke had a long affair with her husband’s son from
a previous marriage. Things slowly deteriorated, and there was immense pressure on
both individuals to secure their futures in the industry. Burke was still the women’s
champion, but performing in a male-dominated profession, and Wolfe had all the key
contacts throughout the NWA.
The Burke-Wolfe feud was intensely bitter. So bitter that Burke feared for her life, and
required protection. Wolfe pushed Burke’s rival, June Byers, and the latter won world title
recognition in a tournament at Baltimore. Soon thereafter, Byers received the favorable
bookings across the Alliance that Burke used to command, strangling the latter’s income
After Burke and Wolfe came to a financial arrangement that gave her complete control of
the women’s booking office, and effectively retired Wolfe, Wolfe decided that he wasn’t
finished in wrestling, and reneged on their deal. Now, he had her money, and was back
trying to put her out of business. Again, Wolfe was using his contacts through the NWA
and influence in the press to injure Burke’s good name. There were few options for her,
and as the weeks and months passed, more and more people accepted Byers as the
women’s world champion despite the fact that Burke had never lost the belt.
The only way to rectify the situation was a title unification bout between the two
champions. Burke didn’t trust Wolfe in the least and was not about to lose her valuable
title to Byers or anyone else on her ex-husband’s roster. The potential paydays for a
series of matches around the country between Burke and Byers was huge, yet Burke
wasn’t having any of it. There were too many factors that jeopardized both her standing
in the wrestling world and her personal life. But because she needed the money, she
agreed to a single bout against Byers in Atlanta on August 20, 1954.
Sporting a knee injury, Burke went into the affair somewhat handicapped both physically
and mentally, and was facing a premier athlete at the top of her game. The match was
for all the marbles, and neither wanted to give an inch. During a rough initial fall, Burke’s
knee forced her to concede verbally, and she went into the second fall still determined to
win. Like most shoot matches, their movements were deliberate and seemingly
uninteresting to those expecting a colorful back-and-forth battle more in tune with the rest
of the card. Needless to say, fans were not thrilled.
The second fall ended unsatisfactorily when officials stopped the match after one hour
and three minutes. Despite the fact that Burke was announced in the arena as retaining
her championship, Byers was publicized as the undisputed titleholder because she won
he only fall. Wolfe used his connections all over the wrestling map to tout her victory and
dispel any belief that Burke was still a claimant. That’s all he wanted anyway. He wanted
to use the Atlanta match to stifle Burke’s claim to the championship and hype Byers. It
People to this day still consider the Burke-Byers match a work. If it was an elaborate
ploy, a worked shoot to build up some excitement, why weren’t there any further matches
between the two? Why didn’t they wrestle all over the country? It meant big money, and
Burke and Wolfe needed it, but never happened. In fact, they never wrestled again.
So why would anyone in a sport that is 99.9% worked, wrestle a shoot match?
They wouldn’t unless prompted by some external factors. The top two reasons were
likely personal and financial. Not everyone in wrestling were best friends, and there was
plenty of animosity and swindling to go around. It wasn’t like the WWE today, where
wrestlers are contractually obligated to behave a certain way in the ring. Back then,
there were legitimate reasons for shoot matches to take place on occasion.
The last example of the stars aligning to produce a rare shoot happened in the Pacific
Northwest in 1932. A highly-skilled welterweight by the name of Wildcat McCann, who’d
appeared in numerous AT shows taking on all comers, was repeatedly issuing challenges
to world title claimant Robin Reed. Reed, a former Olympic gold medallist, was no
certainly no slouch, but wrestled for a rival promotion in Portland run by Virgil Hamlin.
The goading in the press was becoming too much and the local athletic commission saw
McCann as a logical contender. So Hamlin and Reed had to confront the situation head
The two decided that to earn a title match with Reed, McCann first had to wrestle and
beat a hand-picked opponent. This was a perfect example of utilizing a “policeman” in
pro wrestling. The term “policeman” didn’t refer to one of the blue uniformed individuals
standing in the aisle way, but a wrestler of significant ability who warded off challengers to
a specific championship.
“Policemen” were commonly used in the heavyweight division, particularly by Ed Lewis
and Jim Londos. Reed and his promoter picked Pete Metropoulos, and on March 9,
1932, McCann and Metropoulos wrestled in Portland. Their match was completely out of
the ordinary and the Portland Oregonian newspaper commented that it was “one of the
most hectic and weird mat affairs ever staged” in their city. McCann proved his mastery
by winning the first fall by submission, and the second was given to Metropoulos by
default after a stunning display of brutal warfare. In the final fall, McCann “flipped Pete
onto the boards” and was declared the winner.
The Portland Boxing Commission met some time later and fined both McCann and
Metropoulos $50 for failing putting forth their best efforts in the Portland match. A wise
sports writer noted: “Yes, the commission has fined two men for wrestling on the ‘square’
and letting others know that they won’t stand for anything but horse-play … the match
was terrible, but don’t forget it was on the up and up.”
If you can believe it, they were actually fined because they gall to wrestle a real match.
But it was a horrible presentation, and witnesses to the spectacle probably applauded the
In a sport that thrived on secrecy, it is difficult to know for sure which matches in history
were definite shoots and which weren’t. There are other famous incidents, including the
double-crosses of Wayne Munn and Danno O’Mahoney, as well as Ed Lewis’s matches
against Ray Steele and Lee Wykoff.
While shooting matches are a relic in pro wrestling’s past, there are different kinds of
dangers that grapplers face on a day-to-day basis.
Wrestlers today must adhere to a much faster paced style, and if they spend too long in
any one hold, they certainly risk triggering loud “boring” chants. It is just how things are,
and the slam bang style that people are accustomed to continuously force wrestlers to up
the ante – risking their bodies to perform high spots which are thoroughly dangerous.
These moves are inspiring, but you’d never see Lou Thesz or Danny Hodge performing
them. However, if you needed a wrestler for a shoot match, either of the two latter
individuals would fit perfectly.
Thanks to Jeff Leen and Roger Carrier. Check out Leen’s must-read book, The Queen
of the Ring: Sex, Muscles, Diamonds, and the Making of an American Legend, which
discusses Mildred Burke and the 1954 shoot match at length.
Tim Hornbaker is the author of Legends of Pro Wrestling, the ultimate wrestling
reference, due in stores in July 2012.
|Shoot Matches: A Relic of Pro Wrestling’s Past