Here’s a little known fact: In the 189o’s, wrestling was the most popular sport in the United States. Cue up the “The More You Know” jingle.
Now, we’re talking more about classical wrestling…the actual sport. Surprisingly, it was PT Barnum who really propelled wrestling into the area of sports entertainment.
We can read more about this in Wrestling to Rasslin’ : Ancient Sport to American Spectacle. Here’s an excerpt about Barnum:
P.T. Barnum, who had learn a bit about wrestling from Harry Hill’s saloon, signed up scuffler, Ed Deckler, who later won the Police Gazzette belt in collar and elbow style in 1887. Barnum found Deckler ideal for his purposes, for at five foot six and just over 150 pounds he looked deceptively vulnerable.”The circus posted an open offer of $100 to anyone who could ‘throw’ the Little Wonder from Vermont, and $50 to anybody who could remain upright in the ring with him for three minutes. The circus never had to pay a cent.” Wilson reports.
Deckler soon ran out of challengers, so Barnum added John McMahon to his entourage. McMahon, a Vermonter, had wrestled in the west after the war. He even left his farm in 1884 to work his way to England to beat a self-styled world’s champion in just over five minutes. In Barnum’s circus Deckler and McMahon were gaudily outfitted to wrestle daily in 20 minute prearranged bouts. One day Ed was champion, the next Jim appeared with the emblem of eminence and pinned his adversary. In two years of touring and 300 encounters, the two never really did find out who was the better scuffler. The bouts won by various Vermont wrestlers around their country, their travels in circus and roadshow, their proof is that skill is superior to brute strength–all influenced the evolution of American freestyle wrestling.
Prearranged bouts? A title belt? Gaudy clothes? A random McMahon? Oh yeah, that’s wrestling!
Except they were actually Hiram and Barney Davis, two Little People from a Connecticut farm. Oh! They were also mentally disabled. Along with being “wild men from Borneo,” part of their backstory was that they were captured by sailors, after a great struggle of course. Which, sidenote…shows that P.T. Barnum was an epic douchebag. We all knew that, right? Please say yes.
Nevertheless, Barnum brought these ideas that we associate with wrestling to a larger audience, the outlandish costumes and the crazy back stories! Kane (masked, not Kane Lite) would have fit perfectly in a Barnum sideshow!
P.T. Barnum’s ideas where co-opted and amplified by wrestlers and promoters a like! It’s also intensely interesting that a McMahon was the one to take these idea and create a world of sports entertainment.
No matter what we think of the McMahon’s…we owe them so much. Even from the very beginning.