Before Monday Night Raw, before WrestleMania, even before “Black Saturday,” the nationalization of professional wrestling was well underway. It’s just that not many people remember it.
Nearly 30 years ago, in a distant time when the Mayaguez dominated the headlines and ABC had five of the most-watched television shows in the country, the International Wrestling Association (IWA) made a short-lived bid to create a national professional wrestling promotion.
The idea was simple — to offer a superior product in an era when an uneasy territorial balance of power existed between the National Wrestling Alliance, the World Wide Wrestling Federation, and the American Wrestling Association.
“The IWA’s philosophy is ‘Select, don’t settle,’ ” IWA president Robert F. Hatch told Wrestling World. “Why should people have to spend their hard-earned money to see inferior talent week after week?”
The IWA was a direct descendant of the National Wrestling Federation, which promoted shows in upstate New York, western Pennsylvania, and northeastern Ohio from 1970 to 1974. Pedro Martinez, the long-time promoter in Buffalo and neighboring regions, was the IWA promoter, with assistance from his son, Ron.
Many names familiar to NWF enthusiasts — Ernie Ladd, Luis Martinez, Eric the Red, Bulldog Brower, Ox Baker, Tex McKenzie, the Mongols, and TV announcer Jack Reynolds — signed on with the IWA.
Significantly, the IWA was the first promotion of consequence to offer contracts to all of its wrestlers, not just the top names. With a signing bonus to boot, it was easy for the fledgling group to land headliners like Ivan Koloff, Mil Mascaras, and Cowboy Bob Ellis, with occasional visits from the likes of Lou Thesz and a pre-king Jerry Lawler.
Backed by the resources of TV sports entrepreneur Eddie Einhorn, the IWA kicked off in Savannah, Ga. in January 1975, and ran many of its earliest shows in George and the Carolinas. A nationally syndicated TV package, with a regular time slot on superstation WOR from New York City, guaranteed much-needed exposure.
Almost from the start, though, the group ran afoul of the established wrestling order of the day, as existing promoters worked double-time to undercut what they saw as an “outlaw” promotion operating outside the jurisdiction of the NWA and WWWF.
For example, when the IWA promoted its first show in Charlotte on Feb. 20, 1975 (Ivan Koloff vs. Thunderbolt Patterson was the featured attraction), Carolinas wrestling mogul Jim Crockett countered with a card the same night, for a total of three Crockett cards in Charlotte in eight day. What’s more, his lineup featured a show-stopping main event — Ole and Gene Anderson versus Paul Jones and Wahoo McDaniel.
More to the point, though, Crockett and other promoters made it nearly impossible for the IWA to gain access to the best wrestling venues. IWA president Hatch maintained, “This is a free society, not a communist state,” but reality suggested otherwise.
The organization could not get access to the hotbeds of Madison Square Garden, the New Haven (CT) Veterans Coliseum, and the Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Long Island, for instance. Battles over arenas in Crockett’s territory ended up in expensive court fights.
As a result, the IWA was often confined to second-rate facilities, like open-air Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City, NJ, where rain, fights in the stands, and subpar viewing angles conspired to mar the group’s first New York-area appearance in July 1975.
Though the IWA drew moderately sized crowds to smaller buildings like Manhattan’s Beacon Theatre, it was clear by the fall of 1975 that the association would not have legs. Einhorn lost an estimated $500,000 and the promotion effectively folded in October 1975.
“The reason I died was I couldn’t get into Madison Square Garden. The Garden and the Nassau Coliseum,” Einhorn said in Chokehold, the 2003 book by Jim Wilson and Weldon T. Johnson. “So that us where they [members of the wrestling establishment] really got you the most — their deals with the arenas.”
After Einhorn pulled out of the IWA, a remaining band of wrestlers, booked primarily by Johnny Powers, continued to run shows in the North Carolina area for about a year before their well went dry as well.
In the end, the IWA was a good idea imperfectly executed. Given the monopoly condition that existed in pro wrestling, it probably was doomed to failure in trying to break the lock of the territorial system.
Not until 1984 would Vince McMahon purchase Georgia Championship Wrestling, leading to the infamous “Black Saturday” when WWF programming aired on Atlanta superstation WTBS, and set the true seeds for the nationalization of the business.
At the same time, it is clear that the IWA was way ahead of its time. Its television production techniques — stop-action, instant replay — would eventually become standard fare for wrestling broadcasts. And the idea of using the drawing power of cable television to create interest became the growth engine for wrestling in the 1980s and beyond. It’s what makes the IWA a footnote — but a fascinating one — in the annals of pro wrestling.