Verne Gagne’s ‘The Wrestler’ Opens In Theaters Nationwide

by Stephen Von Slagle

February 1, 1974

The Wrestler - historyofwrestling.comDuring the time period following the boom of national coverage on the Dumont Network that ended in the Fifties, and prior to the explosion of Hulk-A-Mania’s popularity during the Eighties, professional wrestling received little-to-no mainstream publicity or attention, despite the fact that the sport enjoyed a large and loyal fan following during this “dark period.” For better or worse, that changed in 1974, with the national theatrical release of The Wrestler. A collaboration between Executive Producer Verne Gagne, director Jim Westman, and writer Eugene Gump, the unintentionally campy film once again thrust pro wrestling back into the national dialogue, at least temporarily. And, while it was not a hit at the box-office, it has gone on to become a popular cult classic among subsequent generations of pro wrestling fans.

The Wrestler -

Ed Asner & Vince McMahon, Sr.

The movie’s plot is quite simple; professional wrestling promoter Frank Bass (Ed Asner) has a dream of staging a “Superbowl of Wrestling” between the various territorial leagues. However, this lofty goal is somewhat hampered when he runs into opposition not only from his champion, Mike Bullard (Verne Gagne), but also various promoters, who are skeptical of the chances for Bass’ idea to succeed financially and, even more so, politically. Meanwhile, once it appears that the concept will actually get off the ground, Bass is confronted and then hounded by the local Mafia, who want in on the action and stand to corrupt the legitimacy of the super-card’s matches. While the aging Bullard has been, in every conceivable way, an exemplary champion for many years, Bass is feeling pressure from his fellow promoters as well as a fickle, capricious fanbase to find a wrestler who can finally defeat the heretofore unbeatable longtime champ. Upon discovering Billy Taylor (Billy Robinson), Bass is convinced that the skillful Englishman has the necessary tools to topple Bullard from the championship mountain. It’s nothing personal for Bass, who believes Bullard is a great champion and a fine man, it’s just the nature of their highly competitive and, once again, completely legitimate sport. But, when a match is finally booked between Bullard and Taylor to decide who will be the champion going into the Superbowl of Wrestling, it becomes clear that the Mafia’s money is on Billy Taylor, which causes big problems for promoter Frank Bass.

There are also several subplots during the film, involving everything from Rhodes & Murdoch engaging in a string of chaotic bar fights to Mike Bullard’s wife being convinced that her husband will die inside of the ring to a budding romantic relationship between Bass and his secretary to the legitimacy of pro wrestling itself. Despite a poorly written script, mediocre acting, noticeably substandard lighting & audio quality, and a cast that was, aside from Ed Asner, utterly lacking in legitimate actors, the film was significant in that it featured appearances from a wide spectrum of mid-Seventies wrestling personalities. That fact, in retrospect, makes for some thoroughly entertaining moments when it comes to the enjoyment of modern professional wrestling fans.

The Wrestler -

Billy Robinson & A Very Young Ric Flair

In addition to Verne Gagne and Billy Robinson, who were starring cast members, the film also featured appearances from more than forty wrestlers, many of whom were top attractions at the time, such as “Superstar” Billy Graham, Ray Stevens, Dick the Bruiser, The Crusher, Dusty Rhodes, Dick Murdoch, Pedro Morales, Nick Bockwinkel, Wahoo McDaniel, and Dory Funk, Jr. among others. At the same time, The Wrestler contained numerous cameos from unknown rookies that would later go on to become major superstars and, in certain cases, all-time legends of the sport, including Ric Flair, Don Muraco, Ken Patera, Jim Brunzell, Mike Graham, and Greg Gagne. Additionally, several promoters of the era make rare on-screen appearances during the film, including Vince McMahon, Sr., Joe Dusek, Eddie Graham, and Wally Karbo.

Unlike Mickie Rourke’s critically-acclaimed 2008 release by the same name, Verne Gagne’s The Wrestler did not enjoy any Hollywood “buzz” or publicity prior to its release (although it was the butt of a joke during an episode of All In The Family) and the movie was nearly universally panned by critics at the time. While no specific financials for the film are available, of the 153 motion pictures released in 1974, The Wrestler ranked #121 at the box-office.

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