I recently spoke to Wrestling Observer Newsletter (wrestlingobserver.com) editor Dave Meltzer. Mr. Meltzer has been a big influence on my career, as his newsletter was what inspired me to start The Wrestling Gazette in the late '90s, which led to the creation of this website.
In the first of my three-part interview, Meltzer and I discussed the origins of his newsletter, appearing on Donahue with Vince McMahon, covering the UFC in their early days, the steroid and sex scandal in the 90's and much more. Make sure to check back here tomorrow for the second part of our interview with Mr. Meltzer.
WrestlingINC: When did you first start watching wrestling and what drew you to it?
Dave Meltzer: 1970. When I was a kid, all the kids watched it. Most of the kids watched it before I did. We would just play baseball, I think wrestling was on at 5 o'clock in the afternoon, so we'd play until 4:30. We'd watch the end of bowling, which I think aired on ABC. Then, when bowling ended, we would watch wrestling, which aired for an hour in our local market. We started going to matches at that time, pretty quickly.
WrestlingINC: Did you pretty much stay a fan the entire time until you started the newsletter?
Meltzer: I started the newsletter pretty quick. I think I had a newsletter by '71. I was always a fan. There were periods in the late '70s, when I was in high school, where wrestling was really uncool. But, I still watched it on TV most every week.
When I look back at the late '70s in San Francisco at the Cow Palace, I have vague memories of it. I don't think that I followed it as closely. Whereas, the early- '70s stuff, I remember distinctly. I think what happened was that in the late '70s, I kind of grew out of it. In '79, when Georgia Championship Wrestling got on here, that was really good stuff. Then, I started getting newsletters and stuff that I got back when I was younger.
So, I would say from '76-'78, I watched it for sure, but it was kind of vague. But, from '79 and on -- yeah. I really followed it close.
WrestlingINC: So, you actually started writing about it in the early '70s?
Meltzer: '71, yeah.
WrestlingINC: Was it more of the way it is now, with breaking kayfabe or was it more opinion-based?
Meltzer: For the time, yeah it was but not to the extent that the Observer was. But for the time -- I mean, I never pretended that it was real if that's what you mean. [Laughs.] When I wrote about it in '71, even though I was 10-years-old, I never pretended that it was real.
WrestlingINC: You started the Observer in the early '80s, right?
Meltzer: Yeah, the end of '82.
WrestlingINC: During that time, all the magazines treated wrestling like it was real. I believe yours was the first major one to treat it like it wasn't.
Meltzer: That's not really true because ... even when I did stuff in the '70s, there was no inclination that it was real or anything like that at all. But, the first guy to do what I did was a guy named Norm Dooley in Indiana. I don't know if I saw his newsletters before I started or when I started, but he was definitely inspiration.
He was really funny and he was the guy that had star ratings for matches. I think that him and Jim Cornette actually came up for that. He was a good friend of Jim Cornette's when they were both kids. He made no bones about it. So, I think that's kind of where I got the approach from.
WrestlingINC: What was the reaction like when it started catching on and started to kind of expose the business?
Meltzer: You know, a lot of people loved it and a lot of people hated it. A lot of people in wrestling thought I was public enemy number one which is kind of funny. Some people still do, which is really funny because they don't even know why anymore. I think it's the whole -- I don't know. Every other sport and every other business has something like this.
You really notice it when you deal with other sports how wrestling pay are way behind the times and in a different world in a lot of cases. It is the only business that I know of where the idea is that they think that it shouldn't be covered. Whereas, everybody else just accepts that it's been like this for 100 years and always will be. With wrestling, it's like they still fight the idea. Like, somehow, it's wrong.
WrestlingINC: I remember reading a while back that you said your phone bill was like $1,000 a month.
Meltzer: Yeah, it was. [Laughs.] It's not that much anymore. Everything has changed in the last 15 years. I mean, everything has changed.
WrestlingINC: But with those kind of expenses, how were you able to get the word out? You probably didn't have too much of an advertising budget.
Meltzer: A lot of it was word of mouth. I did some advertising in the magazines. I definitely had a lot of help those couple of years when I worked for The National Sports Daily. That helped my name a lot. That was a period of a lot of growth.
But, just doing radio shows and word of mouth -- people would read it at matches or see it at matches. That's kind of how I would spread the word.
WrestlingINC: You did cover other sports for different publications. How was it explaining that on one hand, you're covering soccer or something and then also pro wrestling? Was that kind of odd?
Meltzer: That was just hard. I wouldn't say odd -- I guess it was, I don't know. I guess it probably was, but I never thought of it. Covering wrestling was such a full-time job that doing other stuff was hard.
WrestlingINC: You were actually going to shut down the newsletter at one point in the '80's, right?
Meltzer: Yeah, I got another job and I just thought that at the time, I couldn't do both -- which I couldn't. But, I changed how I did the newsletter and it kind of resurrected itself. It never actually went away.
The idea was that I was going to shut it down but that I would keep in contact with people and just kind of write a weekly letter and the weekly letter ended up becoming the modern version of The Observer.
The old Observer was this monthly thing, actually every three weeks. So, the idea was that I'd write this 6-8 page letter and people wanted to subscribe to that. That became The Observer. That was actually a lot more successful than the every-three-weeks thing. So, the whole format was actually something I fell into when I was trying to shut it down, which is actually what lead to it's popularity.
WrestlingINC: During that time in the late '80s, was that when you went to the weekly format?
Meltzer: Yeah, I think that I would have gone to the more weekly format, I'm guessing, around '85 if I remember.
WrestlingINC: You also worked briefly for the WWF as a researcher...
Meltzer: Well, it's hard to say that I worked for the WWF. That's a really weird way of putting it. I did work for the WWE, but I didn't work for the WWE or WWF as it was called at the time.
WrestlingINC: Was there any kind of weird reaction from the front office kind of viewing you as public enemy number one?
Meltzer: I mean, the whole deal was very weird. I didn't last very long. [Laughs.] It was Vince's idea and I'm sure it was Vince's idea to co-opt me or something and then it didn't work and just kind of fell apart. I guess, I don't know. The only person who would really know is Vince as far as what the motive was. I can only presume.
WrestlingINC: Did you have any interaction with Vince at that time?
Meltzer: No, not really. No, I mostly worked with Lou Dondero who was Pat Patterson's friend. I mean, that was who I used to talk to in that era. Then, Pat and Terry Garvin, I talked to them a lot, too.
WrestlingINC: A couple of years later, the steroid scandal broke out. How difficult was that to cover? Because it was more than just the steroids, obviously. There was the sex scandal and all that. It really put the business in a negative light. Was that difficult at all?
Meltzer: Yeah! I mean, I knew it was coming. I had written about that stuff dating back to the early-to-mid-'80s that this was going to happen. You could see it when WWF changed in '84 and then the whole business changed.
I mean, steroids were always around. This idea that Billy Graham or Hulk Hogan or someone like that brought steroids into the wrestling business... When I started watching wrestling in the 1970's, a lot of the guys were on steroids. I remember when I was 11 or 12-years-old, the jobber guys that I knew were talking about taking dianabol and deca durabolin and things like that.
So, I'm not saying everybody was on it and they weren't all bodybuilders or anything like that. I don't know when steroids started in wrestling, but it had to be the early-'60s if not the late-'50s. Plenty of guys were on it, but I don't know if it was a necessity to be on them. It's not like everybody in the business was on them or anything like that.
But in '84 -- again, not everyone because when you say everyone, it's never everyone -- but the percentage of guys who were on them increased greatly in '84 when the WWF became the big game in town. Hogan became the star and you had to keep up with Hogan, you know what I mean?
So, that's when it became more plentiful. Also, there was more of an emphasis to look like a bodybuilder whereas, before, the guys would lift weights and maybe take steroids but maybe not watch what they ate and were big, burly guys as opposed to bodybuilder-looking guys. So, everything changed in '84, the whole business changed in '84 when Vince took it national and changed everything about it.
WrestlingINC: Then, business almost collapsed in the early-'90s. I remember you appeared on Donahue. That's one of the most memorable episodes I've ever seen. I've never seen Vince look some vulnerable and uncomfortable and I don't think you'll ever see that publicly again. What do you remember about that appearance and Vince's reaction on that show?
Meltzer: Yeah, that was a crazy period and I remember that day very well. There was a lot of stuff that happened that day. [Laughs.] I was not supposed to be sitting next to Vince. The focal point was supposed to be Vince and Bruno [Sammartino]. Vince was the big star and Bruno was the legend and they were supposed to be in the middle and I was supposed to be off to the side.
The ended up switching my chair with Bruno's because of fear of what would happen if Vince and Bruno were sitting together. Bruno was very mad at Vince at that time because a couple of days earlier, they were on Larry King. Things happened on Larry King, there was a lot of double-talk that made Bruno look bad.
Bruno brought up that the WBF announcer said so and so and so. Vince just goes, 'That guy was never the WBF announcer,' just to make Bruno look bad on TV. In fact, he was the WBF announcer. Or when the name Mel Philips came up, Vince goes, 'Mel Philips never worked a day in the WWE.'
It makes it look like Bruno is this out-of-touch guy talking about this Mel Philips, when Mel Philips was an independent contractor who had worked solely for WWF for years. Not only that, his home address for the athletic commissions was the WWF corporate offices.
Bruno was very, very upset that day at Vince and so it was for everyone's best concern that I sat next to Vince. So, I did. [Laughs.] The funny part was -- and I think a lot of people knows this -- I was talking to Vince during every commercial break. It was a long hour for him. I remember at the 45 minute mark, he said something to me like, 'This is the longest hour of my life.'
It was definitely a very different Vince from what you would see, I think, any other time. I don't think there's ever been a TV show where Vince was like that.
WrestlingINC: Yeah. The only time I can ever think of him looking vulnerable was in the Wrestling With Shadows documentary after he got punched out [by Bret Hart].
Meltzer: Yeah, that was also a very different situation.
WrestlingINC: Do you think the wrestling business really went down at that time due to the public reaction to the steroid scandal or do you think it was more the company's reaction? Because, you went from the Ultimate Warriors' and the Randy Savages', to now having Doink The Clown and Mabel. It was kind of hard to watch even if you wanted to stick with the product.
Meltzer: I don't think that any sport goes down because athletes use steroids. The public will complain, but they will still watch. Look at baseball. People are mad that the people use it but it's not like attendance went down or things like that.
I think what happened was that you had a generation of people who were groomed [to know] this was what a wrestler looked like. Then, when they had to clean up, the guys didn't look like that anymore. Then, the other thing that I think you have to remember that you had American Gladiators. American Gladiators gained a lot of popularity at the time that wrestling lost popularity. Even though American Gladiators was a short-lived thing.
They were on the same stations and it was a syndicated battle for ratings and they were doing really great numbers and wrestling was starting to hurt. I think that had a little bit to do with it as well.
I think that the creative was a lot worse. I think that if you really look back on the creative in those years when they were down, it was pretty bad in comparison to other years. But you gotta remember: they built this whole thing around Hulk Hogan.
Hulk Hogan was so big and when he was gone -- if Hulk Hogan would have left in '88 -- let's just say -- and been gone from '88 to '90, there business would have gone down even with 'Macho Man' and [Roddy] Piper and those people. It wouldn't have gone down as much because they were more on a roll then. Hulk Hogan was so important to the building of that brand that. When Hulk was gone, you were going to be a little bit hurt there.
Then, the other thing was that you were used to all these huge, muscular guys and it wasn't just Hulk. It was Hulk and it was Warrior and it was Sid Vicious and it was the Road Warriors. In the course of 1992, if you look at the guys that depart the company, it was a pretty big list of the top talent.
Then you're left with a lot of guys like Bret [Hart] and Shawn [Michaels] who were there but they were not top guys. Bret was on the verge of being a top guy when this happened and then became a top guy pretty quick. But for a long time, he was in the middle. Shawn was not a top guy, he was starting to get his push. So, it was a transition period. Again, a lot of it also was that creative was bad.
You had the Papa Shango angle that I don't think really clicked. I don't think people wanted that type of thing. It was not like people got outraged because people were on steroids at all. I don't think that had anything to do with it. But, the fact that a lot of guys got smaller and a lot of guys disappeared that were type guys and bad creative combined. Yeah, that lead to a down period in wrestling.
WrestlingINC: Was it around that period that shoot fighting starting to get big in Japan or was that earlier?
Meltzer: Pancrase started in '93, UFC started in '93 as well. This is the bad period of wrestling, I would say, post-WrestleMania '92 was when it really went down. When Hogan left. It started to make the comeback with the Monday night wars. The Monday night wars late-'95, so the comeback started in '96ish, probably. That would be when those groups did get started in Japan and in the United States.
WrestlingINC: You started covering UFC right away with UFC 1. Was it kind of because of the pro wrestling connection and that you had pro wrestlers competing in the UFC?
Meltzer: Yeah. The first UFC had Gerard Gordeau who had one or two pro wrestling matches in Japan, but I knew of him. Ken Shamrock was a pro wrestler. Dan Severn was not in the first UFC but he was a pro wrestler who became a star in UFC pretty quick.
The crossover of guys in those early UFCs to pro wrestling -- there were tons of them. It just became a natural thing to cover. A lot of it, too, was that the first UFC, the local promoter in Denver was Zane Bresloff who at the time would have been in his last days with WWF. I knew Zane Bresloff and he was promoting with WWF until late-'93 and then in '94, he switched to WCW.
He didn't stay with UFC very long. He promoted the first two shows and then he ended up with WCW full time and didn't have anything to do with them. But, that's also how I got started in a sense. He was the one that was really gung-ho. 'Hey, we got this guy and this guy and Ken Shamrock.' I was like, 'Oh, if Ken Shamrock's in it, then I got to cover it.'
Ken Shamrock wasn't a big name in pro wrestling in the United States, but he was a big name in pro wrestling already in Japan from the dying days of the UWF. Ken Shamrock, as the promotion was dying, became one of their big stars and he was very popular with Pro Wrestling Fujiwara Gumi when they were doing worked-shoot style. Pancrase started right before and nobody knew what pancrase was honest to God. It was just different.
Ken and Royce Gracie were the two guys that built the original UFC. To me, that became very interesting, especially in Japan. Especially in Japan, UFC got tremendous coverage in the wrestling magazines. The second Ken Shamrock vs. Royce Gracie match in Charlotte, I remember the coverage was way bigger than any WrestleMania had ever been. The cover, which was unheard of for an American event to get a Japanese cover. It was just huge in Japan.
The early UFC, I won't say it was huge in the United States, but it was big. They were doing similar pay-per-view numbers to WWF and WCW without any television so it was pretty impressive but it was a short run. By 1997, it was starting to fade. It started in '93, it really picked up in '94. I would say that it was really strong in '95 and '96 and then it went down. So, it was a short-lived thing the first time.
WrestlingINC: When you were covering it in '93-'94, did you picture it becoming bigger or did you see it kind of staying as this freak show/spectacle?
Meltzer: I didn't really think about it because it was something that they just did, the first couple. It was there. I didn't think about it being big or small until they did UFC 3. I just remember when UFC 3 was over, there was someone in wrestling that called me up right after the show ended. It was a really different show. There was a lot of twists and turns in UFC 3. He goes, 'Wow, this is the show that turned it around.' I said, 'Yeah, they're going to start doing business after this. There's so much going on.'
They did, as a matter of fact. It was after UFC 3 that it really hit big. UFC 4-7, that's when they were at their peak of business. Things happened. There were a lot of things that they weren't ready for and they had a lot of politic enemies. A lot of things happened that took it down. Some of it was, in hindsight if you look at it, was really unfair. But, it happened.
As far as thinking it would be as big as it became? No. Did I think it would be very big? Yes. When UFC 1 and 2 were over, I didn't think much about it. It was just something I watched that night. Never gave it a lot of thought as to where it was going. After UFC 3? Yes, I thought it would become something very significant. Especially if they got television.
They never got television and then it went down for political reasons. But, did I think it would be as big as it became? No.
WrestlingINC: You mentioned 1997 when it started to go down. That was also a scary year because all of a sudden, WWF going out of business didn't seem that unlikely. Business was going down, they were starting to lose money. Did you see that that could potentially happen?
Meltzer: I mean, I knew they were losing money. I do not believe that I ever for a second thought that WWF was ever going to go out of business at any point in time. Not like it never would, but there was never a point where I thought, 'Wow, they could go out of business.' Even when they were losing money, I just thought that there was enough there.
There were enough different things that could have been done to where I just never saw it going down. Even when WCW was hammering it and they were scared of going out of business. They took the water coolers and things were bad -- and they were -- and guys got the pay cuts and everything. I never really believed they were going to go out of business.
Jim Crockett Promotions? Yes, I could see that because I knew they were losing money and making mistakes and things like that. I just thought that WWF had enough of a foundation. If there were money issues, they could find investors because people would go, 'Hey, WWF was big.' I just thought that because of what they did in the late '80s and the popularity of it in the late '80s, it would somehow survive even if it was losing money for a while.
It was always, to me, the right talent and the right angle away from turning around. I always knew that, every wrestling company is. It's just that sometime it doesn't happen. I always thought as long as they were in business, the chance of the right guy walking through the door with the right angle and something happening -- I thought it was always there. So, no -- I knew that there was a possibility because with every business, there is. But, as far as whether there was ever a point where I believed -- Oh, my God, they're really going to go out of business? I never believed for a second that they were actually going to go out of business when they were losing money. No.
Make sure to check back tomorrow for the second part of our three-part interview with Dave Meltzer. You can follow him on Twitter (@davemeltzerWON), and check out The Wrestling Observer online at wrestlingobserver.com.