June 2, 2012
@GaryMehaffy on Twitter
An Interview with Dave Meltzer
Interview conducted Thursday, May 31st, 2012.
When did your interest in pro wrestling start?
When I was in fifth grade. Basically, all the kids in school were watching wrestling every Saturday afternoon that I was hanging out with, so I ended up watching wrestling with them. Thatís kind of how it started. I became a pretty big fan pretty quickly, but most of the kids were in those days Ė it was nothing unusual.
Who were the main guys that you were into at that stage?
The wrestlers here, it was San Francisco Wrestling that I first saw at the Cow Palace, Roy Shire Wrestling, were Pat Patterson, Ray Stevens, Superstar Billy Graham, Paul DeMarco came pretty quickly (after that)Ö..Iím trying to think who else. Pepper Gomez, Rocky Johnson and Peter Maivia were here. Tony Parisi was hereÖ..The first show I ever saw was Pat Patterson, Billy Graham and Paul DeMarco against Ray Stevens, Peter Maivia and Rocky Johnson in the main event. Those were the top guys here at the time and a lot of the big names came through over the next couple of years. The territory was very strong, the Cow Palace was very strong.
You started a newsletter in your teens. What led to you coming up with that?
I donít know honestly! It was just something I did. I was already doing a newsletter on baseball at the time and it was just something I did to occupy my time, and then I sent a copy to Jim Melby who did a fan club column for Wrestling Monthly or Wrestling Review Ė I think it was Wrestling Monthly Ė and he put it in and I got a bunch of subscribers out of it and thatís pretty much how I got started.
Subsequently from there what led to the birth of the Observer itself?
The Observer came years later, it was when I was in college. When I was in college, in my journalism class, pretty much most of the guys in the class were wrestling fans and I was a wrestling fan Ė although territorially wrestling had died and the local wrestling here was the AWA which was not that popular, it never really hit in San Francisco. They used a lot of older guys, and those older guys were legends in Minneapolis, Winnipeg and Chicago and those places, but when they brought The Crusher and Mad Dog Vachon here, along with Baron Von Raschke, they were old men so the people here couldnít relate to them at all. Even with Hogan it was never that big here, but my friends were all into wrestling from their childhood and they would always ask me questions about it because I was pretty knowledgeable about it at that point, so I started doing the Observer because I was talking to them and trading tapes with people at the same time from other territories. I would be writing letters to those people and I figured that instead of writing ten different letters to ten different people in the same part of the country Iíll just basically write a newsletter. Thatís how I got started.
Obviously nowadays in the internet era itís slightly easier, but how difficult was it maintaining the newsletter back in the early eighties?
It wasnít like I could make any money out of it in the early years, but it was fun! Wrestling was pretty popular in those days and it was pretty interesting with all of the different territories. There was a lot of wrestling to watch and it never got boring with so many different ideas, so many different people and so many talented guys. It was incredibly time consuming to keep up with and but it fun at the same time.
Thereís the talk that in the mid eighties you contemplated pulling out of the newsletter because you were fed up with the scene at the time? Was this right and what had soured you onÖÖ
It wasnít so much that, as much as I got a job with a soccer magazine and I didnít figure I could d both at the same time. What I did wasÖÖthe old Observer was a magazine thing that would come out every couple of weeks Ė it used to be monthly, but there was so much news that I ended up doing it every third week Ė and I didnít think I could do it any more while doing the soccer thing, so I said I was going to stop doing it but I still wanted to keep in contact with certain people, so I would do a weekly letter to people that was 6 pages, and that got so popular, and actually more popular than the old Observer, that I never actually stopped. I figured I would stop when I got the soccer job, but it just changed the Observer for the better, so it worked out better that way!
Mick Foley has gone, public is one way to put it, with crediting you with helping him get his foot into the mainstream wrestling door. How influential do you think you were with the Observer in helping get guys notoriety?
In the eighties, a lot, because everybody read it. Now, whoís to say? I donít really know. In the eighties it was the source of information and everybody read it.
How did you manage to convince some of the bigger names in the industry to give you ďinsiderĒ information? How did you build up those relationships?
I was on the phone all the time with everybody. It wasnít as hard as people think, as far as that goes, because wrestlers in those days were going from territory to territory and there was a lot of bullshit that got spread, and the one thing that I did was that I was able to get how the business was doing in different parts of the country, so it was valuable to the wrestlers. Some of the wrestlers had a closed mind towards it. A lot of the promoters didnít like it, but some of the promoters did. From very early on, most of the promoters were getting it and a lot of the wrestlers were getting it. It was like Ė who was in what territory, what business were they doing, what territory was up, what territory was down, who were the new, young guys that are good, things like that. It served a purpose because the wrestling magazines were looking at wrestling in a very different way than they do now and than the Observer did. It was about who was making money and who wasnít, but when Vince took off, which was actually pretty quick after the Observer started, it was where was Vince doing well, where was Vince not doing well, who was hanging on by a thread, who was still flourishing. Wrestling changed drastically from 1984 Ė 1988. The product from 1983 compared to 1988 was virtually unrecognisable with the differences in the big picture. With the death of the territories and the rise of the WWF and to an extent the rise and fall of Jim Crockett Promotions and Bill Watts and the AWA, and the death of the other companies, it was just a period where something big was happening every day. Thereís never been a moreÖÖÖthereís been bigger news stories but thereís never been a bigger news worthy period than that time, from late 1983 Ė 1988, when all the moves were being made by Vince, and then by Crockett, and then Crockett had to sell. It changed the whole face of the industry everywhere, really.
I was going to ask this in a little while, but Iíll just ask it now. Do you think we are still seeing the effect nowadays of the territories systematically being killed off?
Yea. Weíre feeling the effects of everything that happened. From the effects of the territories going down Ė although that was an inevitability, it would have happened no matter what Ė but the one where weíre feeling the effect the most was the Turner company, WCW, going down. It changed the industry in a way that itíll never recover, because the stakes of getting in are too high. They were able to compete to a degree, but you canít do it now because youíve got so much catching up to do and the business has changed and the fan base has changed. The fans of an era where they were wrestling fans, that era has gone. Right now you have fans of the WWE version of wrestling and if itís not that some people will watch TNA on television, but very few will pay for it. As far as independents go, yea, youíll get your crowds at independent shows, such as they are, but itís very limited unless itís a big deal on a national stage. But WCW going down changed wrestling in a way that I donít know if it will ever fully, recover isnít he right word, but the effects will be felt forever.
Jumping back for a little second. You were talking a week or so ago on one of the Observer radio shows with Bryan about how the irony was that Vince was talking to you at one stage in the eighties and was telling the guys to make sure that they werenít. Were they many of the guys who were afraid of talking to you in case it was obvious that info was coming from them?
I donít know. Iím sure there were. In those days it was more of a running gag. I think now people are probably more afraid than they were then. The guys now Ė and this is not a knock on them, itís a product of their environment Ė are a different breed of guys. Itís just different. Itís not better or worse, itís just different. Before you had a lot of people who had a lot more confidence. I wonít say it was a confidence in their ability, they had hat too, but they were from a different and they were independent guys. Now, theyíre paranoid guys. There was always paranoia, but itís a different level now. There was a feeling that if you were talented and a promoter didnít like you, then screw Ďem, thereís 25 places to work! Now, even if youíre talented, itís very easy for you not to have a job and not have ANY job. Thereís no comparables to go somewhere else if you donít like it here. Itís more of an environmental difference, but they guys are different too. I just noticed that when WWE changed percentages on what guys got paid at house shows, in the last couple of months, it just wet by and nobody complained and nobody said anything because they are afraid to say anything, whereas before it youíd had something like that youíd have had guys walking out. Guys walked out over one payoff. When they were a main event on a show and they thought theyíd got screwed on a payoff theyíd walk out and go and work somewhere else. Youíd see territories go down because of that. Itís just a different era of business, itís changed.
There have been a few famous incidents involving the Observer Ė one involving Hogan burning a copy of it on PPV (World War III). Did you find that funny or frustrating?
I thought it was funny when he did that. I remember that night, talking to people in WCW, we were all laughing about it. It was just a weird night. He (Hogan) was trying to say Savage didnít have an arm injury and thereís one arm half the size of the other, and the finish of his match is the armbar on the bad arm, and Hogan going ďWell, The Giant isnít going to winĒ or whoever was going to win, who was the guy who was originally going to win and it was changed, I think to Savage or something, and actually in the Observer it said Savage was going to win, or something along those line. The whole thing was just hilarious. (Hogan saying) ďOh, yea, me and Savage have been working the boys, he was never injuredĒ and one of his armís half the size of the other!
Do you find any competition or hostility, which might be the wrong way to put it, between yourself the likes of Wade Keller or Mike Johnson etc?
No, not at all. Mike Johnson works really hard, and Iím sure Wade Keller does to. Iím not in contact with Wade Keller at all, and Iím not in contact with Mike Johnson a lot, but on occasion I am, but I donít think about it or anything like that.
Do you think itís easier or harder these days to get a five star rating on a match?
I donít think itís easier or harder. I think that thereís a formula to matches thatís a little bit different than in the past, but I dunno. Youíd have to go back year by year. Thereís never a lot, except perhaps that All Japan era in the nineties, when those guys were just so incredible and innovative and things like that. Itís never been easy to get a five star match, in my mind. Thereís a couple every year, maybe.
What led to the Observer Hall Of Fame becoming what it is?
It was an idea Iíd been kicking around for a few years, and it just was the time to do it. I would talk to different people, like Thesz and stuff, about different guys, and I think that WWE had half-assed started one, and WCW had, and they were all so political, and I thought maybe we should do one where itís not so obviously political. People argue that it is, but compared to WWEís and WCWís it wasnít at all. For a year, or a year and a half, before the first Hall Of Fame issue Iíd been talking to people on who should be in and who shouldnít. there were a couple who should have got in he first year who didnít, maybe thereís one or two who got in who shouldnít have, but I donít think thereís any outrageously bad people in there at all. You can argue there are people who should be in there who arenít, and I think there are people who should be that havenít gotten the votes myself, but when I look at the list itís not like thereís a James Dudley or a Koko B Ware or anyone like that.
Or Pete Rose!
Pete Rose, yea.
How do you decide who votes, etc?
Itís hard to say. Kind of just the people who voted last year! (laughs) Every now and then thereís some new people come in.
What led to you incorporating MMA (UFC especially) into the Observer?
It was from the beginning. Pancrase, which preceded the UFC, was all pro wrestlers. It was considered pro wrestling in Japan. No-one knew really what it was, but today we would consider it mixed martial arts. In those days, it was just a different style of pro wrestling. UFC did not bill itself as pro wrestling, but the first show had Ken Shamrock, who was a pro wrestler, and Gerard Gordeau, who was a pro wrestler. Then Dan Severn came in, and he was a pro wrestler, so covering it just seemed like the natural thing to do at the time.
How frustrated are with what you see in the business today? Even in the last couple of days weíve had Randy Ortonís 60 day suspension. How frustrated are you when you see things like this still happen?
Things like that are inevitable because youíre dealing with human beings. Iíd be frustrated if I was on the writing team of the company, or if I was working for the company, because heís a key guy. For me, when it happened, I felt bad because I donít like to see it but I wouldnít call frustrated the word it was just that that was the news on that day. It didnít shock me. I donít know if it proved that theyíre willing to suspend a top guy, but theyíve suspended Jeff Hardy when he was on top. I donít think that itís incumbent on the guys to knowÖÖÖthe top guys either should be clean or know how to beat the test, and I think thereís a little bit of both going on, and I guess it would surprise me in the sense that youíd think that Orton at his age and the stage of life heís in Ė heís not 23 anymore Ė that he would be smart enough Ė because a lot of the testing is IQ testing Ė to not do anything that would get him caught at this stage of the game. I donít know all the details of what the test was for. Itís not like some of the other ones, where I did know right away. I donít know how long ago the test was, if they were going back and forth on whether to suspend himÖÖthereís so many things that come across in drug testing, not just in WWE, but with everyoneís drug tests. With WWE itís all private and secret, so you donít know itís going on, but in UFC because of the commissions you know exactly whatís going on. You see all those weird things where a guy fails a test and then claims he took a contaminated supplement, he claims he was doing it for injury rehabilitation and things like that. Everyoneís got a reason, not always, but usually. People come up with reasons when they fail a test, and then theyíve got to go and examine those reasons and I most cases theyíre usually excuses. Then itís just a question of do you believe those excuses or not? Thatís what happens.
This question might be, unfair could be the wrong way to put it Ė and I have my own thoughts Ė but who do you think is possibly the worst wrestler youíve ever seen?
Oh, god, the worst one Iíve ever seen Ė thatís a hard one! I donít know. There were certainly a LOT of really bad wrestlers that I saw over the course of my life, but I donít know if I could come up with a worstÖÖ.Some of the people who were thrust into a national scene right away without adequate training are usually the worst. Then there are guys who werenít maybe the worst, but they never really got good and they were around for years and years and were always terrible. Youíve got a little bit of both. Some guys the light never clicked. A lot of the worst wrestlers would be guys who had great looks or great physiques and got chance after chance but just never got the wrestling end of it. Those type of guys would be the worst wrestlers, because theyíd keep getting chances, or the son of a promoter, like Mike Von Erich, who wasnít the worst wrestler I ever saw, but was certainly a very unconvincing main eventer.
Conversely, the best? Again, this may be unfair given the variety of styles.
There are so many differences between time and culture and place that to pick out a single best is hard, but I know that Kenta Kobashi is probably the name that I would say as far as at his best I donít think Iíve ever seen anyone better. His championship reign from 03-05, when he was really past his physical prime, was one of the great championship reigns that I ever saw. Certainly the best in the last decade or so. All the names that people will brig up Ė Ric Flair, Shawn Michaels, Jumbo Tsuruta, all of those type of guys. Buddy Rogers, Iím sure, by the standards of his time was fantastic. Ray StevensÖÖ.I finally saw some sixties Ray Stevens. Even though I grew up with Ray Stevens, by the time I saw him he was already past his prime. When I saw him (on tape) he reminded me of Shawn Michaels, the Shawn Michaels of his time. He was certainly up there. Some of the guys now Ė the Japanese guys now seem a little bit more technically ahead at the top level. But I mean, hell, Bryan Danielson is a fantastic wrestler. He doesnít have the main event feel of a Kenta Kobashi, not even close, that aura that a superstar has, but as far as technically working, heís fantastic, and he is a star. When you talk about the whole package Kobashi had that, Michaels had that, Flair had that. Ric Flair had that at in INCREDIBLE level. Ray Stevens had it. Theyíre the guys that I can think of off the top of my head, that had the aura of a superstar and they were fantastic workers and they had the respect of the guys that they were in there with.
If you were starting the Observer from scratch today, would you do it?
Probably not. Itís a different era. Maybe, I donít know. Who knows? Would I now be a fan of this wrestling at ten years old? Maybe I would. Itís impossible to say. Would I be a fan of something else? I would have done what I did, whether there was wrestling or not. I would have done baseball or football or basketball or something, that was gonna happen. Wrestling was almost, I donít wanna say an accident, but it happened to be the one that had the hole, where something needed to be done and no-one was doing it and thatís the one that I got a reputation in, but if it wasnít for that Iíd have been writing soccer or something, or NFL, I donít know what, but Iíd have been doing something. If I was that age, Iíd be doing something, but what and where? I donít know. One of the differences also was at that point when I was young was to write for the hometown newspaper, that was the goal! That doesnít exist anymore. There is a hometown newspaper, but I think that people can see now that that is an anachronism from the past, and those things are dying off. What would I want to do? Would I want to do that now or would I come up with some other type of job that would be better? Whoís to say? Itís a hard question to answer
I can see the difference. I teach 10 and 11 year olds, and in teaching you see some kids who are really into it, but almost year on year itís less Ė but thatís probably to do with the staleness of the product and how hot wrestling is perceived to be, compared to 5 or 10 years ago.
I donít think itís any colder than it was five years ago. If youíre talking about 2001, then thereís a world of difference. That period from 1998-2001 was a huge, huge period. I think that was as big as wrestling ever was in my whole lifetime. When I was a kid, like I said, in school every kid, when I first started, we only had 1 hour of wrestling a week. Later we had other hours and some stuff came from other territories, but we would never miss a wrestling television show, the 1 hour a week that we had. It was must see ad every kid watched it, and on the playground everyone knew who everyone was, at least the guys in the territory. Did they know guys fro other territories? No, but thatís a different thing. I know with my son, the difference between him at his age Ė heís the age I was when I started watching wrestling Ė and there are kids who are wrestling fans that are his age, but theyíre more casual, they donít know everyone. I know one of my sonís friends whoís a big wrestling fan and I threw some names out at him and he didnít know who HHH was or who John Morrison was. He knew John Cena and Rey Mysterio. It was like, wow! We knew who the job guys were and he doesnít even know who HHH is. A lot of the kids do know who John Cena is as far as a name goes, but most of them are not wrestling fans and they donít watch it regularly like we did. I can tell from that that the interest of wrestling among kids is nothing close to 40 years ago at the same stage. Thereís a lot more things to do. I donít think the interest in baseball or football is the same either. Everyone could name the baseball players and the football players and I know my son doesnít know the names of too many baseball players or too many football players or too many basketball players. I donít think he knows any, honestly. He knows the names of a few wrestlers. Itís not just wrestling, I think that because there are so many options between television and other forms of entertainment that the dominant thing that everybody knows and everybody does doesnít exist. Itís not like at 11.30pm the whole country is watching Johnny Carson, who was a talk show host here, or when Ali fought everybody shut down everything that they did. We would listen to the radio, because you couldnít even watch it unless you went to close circuit theatres, and we would sit there all huddled around the radio, listening to round by round descriptions of Muhammad Ali fights. When Mayweather fights, as big as it is, that doesnít exist. You donít get kids on my street huddling around a radio or anything, and they werenít watching the Pay-Per-View of it either. Floyd Mayweather is not close to as big as what Ali was. The Superbowl is probably the one thing that exists in that way. The World Series isnít really as big either, but the Superbowl, thatís the one were it feels like everybody still watches. Itís the only one.