Wrestling in Texas is known for its wide, open, rough style. That is what they say in some parts of the country. Both the wrestlers and its fans were responsible for creating a sport of theatrics, violence and fierce devotion. On the night of March 1971, photographer Geoff Winningham joined thousands of fans that flooded into the gladiatorial arena. That night he witnessed Paul Boesch’s legendary Friday night fight night with fresh eyes. Mad Professors, and Clean-cut Americans fought Communists, Cowboys and Indians in the cosmic struggle to uphold the moral order. Drawn to the religiosity of the crowds and the physicality and theatrical finesse of the players, he went on to shoot his series ‘Friday Night at The Coliseum’. Looking back to the nights he spent behind the ropes, we speak to Geoff about the way Texan wrestling inspired such fervor in its fans and how the characters were born, worshiped and sacrificed in the ring.

 

Bobby Shane and Tim Woods in a “Test of Strength” hold

I wanted to be out, wherever there was a crowd gathered I wanted to be there photographing it, I’d read about wrestling at the London Coliseum and I thought, ‘I’ll go there’. So I went that Friday night with my camera and the minute I walked into the Coliseum I was bowled over by the beauty of it, the intensity of it. You had this ring in the middle of the Coliseum with these bright lights pouring down from above and the crowd gathered around it screaming and shouting.  It was like mayhem- my specialty. Wherever there is a crowd and there is lots of chaos, that’s where I really get excited and inspired, as a photographer.

 

Johnny Valentine and “Blimp Harris” in a Texas Fence Match.

Sharon Mazer, 'Professional Wrestling, Sport and Spectacle'

Professional wrestling is an athletic performance practice that is constructed around the display of the male body and a tradition of cooperative rather than competitive exchanges of apparent power between men.

Heroes & Villains

Johnny Valentine vs. Wahoo McDaniel in a Texas Heavyweight Championship match.

At the time that I was photographing wrestling, the range of characters that came into the ring, and the personas that they were presenting, were hilarious. They were statements about the values, interests and concerns in the culture of the time. It was the early 70’s and we were still on the tail end of the Cold War so, the ultimate villain would have been a Russian. In fact, he was Russian…or so he claimed.

 

 

 

Even though this is not an athletic sport, there is a tremendous amount of athletic ability involved and a tremendous amount of punishment. They hurt in these matches. You can’t have a guy that weighs 250lb fall on you without being hurt. You can’t be thrown out of the ring onto a concrete floor. You can’t have someone dive from a side post and flatten you. They took a tremendous amount of punishment and they have an amazing amount of athletic skill to do what they do. When you combine that with their theatrical ability, they’re amazing performers.

Johnny Valentine and Wahoo McDaniel were some of the best performers. When I was 10ft from them, it looked to me like they were fighting for their life. So it’s the combination of their theatrical skill, athletic ability, their ability to absorb punishment. They’re pretty amazing what they do.

 

 

(Left : Johnny Valentine, Texas Heavyweight Champion wrestler.)

THE PLAYERS

The Dandy

GORGEOUS GEORGE

aka George Raymond Wagner

 

He was the ultimate guy who played with issues of masculinity. In most parts of the United States in the 1970’s, tolerance for gays was much diminished compared to what it is now. We had not evolved to the point we have. So the idea that someone was just gay, even effeminate would rouse the crowd into a state of fury and they’d want him to be punished for that. So when Gorgeous George stepped into the ring, kind of preening and primping and playing into the crowd, that would just put them into a frenzy of ‘kill him’, ‘get him out of here’, which was of course was exactly what he wanted.

 

Tim Woods connects with a Flying Dropkick to the head of Gorgeous George.

The Mad Russian

BORIS MALENKO

aka Lawrence “Larry” J. Simon

 

He claimed that he was a defecting Russian physicist who had turned, so he came into the ring as that and people kind of hated him for it. It wasn’t so much a masculinity issue with Boris as it was that he was the kind of a character that couldn’t be trusted, a real villain. He was tricky, and would certainly do away with you if you turned your back on him.

 Bronko Lubick crouches over his partner Chris Markoff  in a tag team match.

The Asian Henchman

TORU TANAKA 

aka Charles J. Kalani Jr.

 

The Asian villains, were tricky and you know? They would come into the ring with all sorts of props, playing out all sorts of ritual ceremonies before the match to kind of gather his powers. Then he would defeat the good guy, so there’s that sense of wrestling being a model of a moral order still intact. That’s basically what wrestling was about and that’s why people  came back again, and again.

(Feature Image : Mil Mascaras finishes Toru Tanaka with a Flying Body Press from the corner post.)

The Spectators

Geoff Winningham, Photographer

The wrestling, as I saw it, was more like church than a traditional sport.

 Fans waiting at the ringside for the wrestlers to arrive.

What I grew to appreciate about wrestling was the human quality of it. It seems that wrestling is closer to theatre than to sport. I don’t know any theatre in which an audience is so directly involved and so immediately connected to what’s happening on the stage.

 

 

 

The fans in Houston that I photographed knew all the wrestlers. One of the great differences between wrestling and other “sports” is that there is this very direct connection between the performers and the audience. When those guys came into the ring, people would crowd them, shake their hands, pat them on the back, give them a hug, they were very accessible. Before and after the matches they would be outside their dressing room, there would be crowds around them posing for photographs, getting their autographs. They were very connected to the wrestlers.

 

(Right : Fans at ringside, seeking autographs from wrestler Nick Kozak.)

The people came to be reassured that their moral values were still reflected in what’s happening out there. That strong good men, still had a place in the moral order of things. That men who were strong and fought hard, didn’t always win, but always stood up for what was right. I love art and human endeavour that is directly related to people’s emotional needs and that’s what wrestling was. Those people went in order to be assured that moral order is intact.

A poster from promoter Paul Boesch’s office showing historic wrestlers.

Sharon Mazer, 'Professional Wrestling, Sport and Spectacle'

What [most studies]

have in common is their presentation of wrestling underlying social and moral ethos as a model of lower-class expressions of the desire for a non ambiguous moral order where virtue may not always prevail, but it is easily recognizable and always worth cheering.

BIOGRAPHY

Over a career that spans nearly 50 years, Geoff Winningham has received two fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, five grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, and numerous commissions. He has published ten books and completed three documentary films on a wide variety of subjects, primarily related to Texas and Mexican culture.  His book Traveling the Shore of the Spanish Sea: The Gulf Coast of Texas and Mexico (2010) won both the Ron Tyler Prize from the Texas State Historical Association and the J. B. Jackson Award from the Foundation for Landscape Studies.  His photographs are in major collections across the United States, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Boston Museum of Fine Arts; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; San Antonio Museum of Art; the Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego; and the Wittliff Collections.