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Transcript of Irvin Muchnick's
Interview with Samuel Freedman
of the Jerusalem Post

(Samuel Freedman's "In the Diaspora" column in the June 15 issue of the Jerusalem Post can be
viewed at
http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1181813032214&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull.)
How important were Jews to creating and expanding pro wrestling?

Pro wrestling’s roots are in the carnival tents of the 19th century – so Jews had no special influence on
the birth of this “sport.” However, they have had a disproportionate impact on its business growth. As a
matter of culture-mongering, we can theorize about the reasons for this, as Neal Gabler so skillfully did
in his book on Jews in early Hollywood,
An Empire of Their Own.

As detailed in the first chapter
Wrestling Babylon, my uncle Sam Muchnick (1905-1998), a Ukrainian-
Jewish immigrant, was the most powerful person in the wrestling industry between World War II and the
advent of cable TV (which destroyed the old order by creating the opportunity for an international
marketing base and led to the “WWFization” of wrestling). As president of the National Wrestling Alliance
(NWA) almost continuously from the fifties through the mid-seventies, he consolidated the gentlemen’s-
agreement territorial system that kept the industry stable and thriving through boom-and-bust TV cycles.
With his political connections and savvy, Muchnick also kept this blatant cartel from getting busted by
antitrust regulators. A 1956 Justice Department consent decree, negotiated by my uncle (with behind-
the-scenes help from Congressman Melvin Price, an old sportswriting buddy), was brilliantly crafted.
Indeed, a decade after Vincent J. McMahon (father and predecessor New York promoter of Vincent K.
McMahon, the chairman of World Wrestling Entertainment) deserted the NWA in a dispute over booking
the “world champion,” he rejoined the alliance in part because he felt it gave him protection from federal
scrutiny.

Another prominent figure from Eastern Europe was Jack Pfefer (1894-1974). Described by one historian
as “eccentric, unscrupulous, but undeniably imaginative,” Pfefer is best known for helping popularize
freak acts and, through his discovery of “The Fabulous Moolah” (better known to her parents in
Columbia, South Carolina, as Lillian Ellison), women’s wrestling. The library at the University of Notre
Dame houses the Jack Pfefer Wrestling Collection, donated by Chicago White Sox owner Eddie Einhorn
(who twice himself went into the wrestling business; for more info, see
http://www.nd.
edu/~joycecol/Wrestling/pfefer.html.

Turning to Jews in general, Jim Barnett (1924-2004) is recognized as one of the masterminds of the
wedding of wrestling and television through his work with promoter Fred Kohler on the old Dumont
network show out of Chicago’s Marigold Arena. Sam Muchnick pushed Barnett to important positions in
the NWA hierarchy long after other, homophobic powerbrokers wanted to drive him out (Barnett was
gay). Barnett later took pro wrestling to Australia and had great success there. Still later, in the mid-
eighties, he was a central figure in the scenario by which Vincent K. McMahon’s World Wrestling
Federation took over Georgia Championship Wrestling, which had the original popular cable-TV
wrestling show on Ted Turner’s SuperStation WTBS.

Jews have been less conspicuous as in-ring performers. But there are some.
The New York Times
earlier this year ran an obituary of Abe Coleman, who at age 101 was believed to be the oldest living pro
wrestler. Back in the day when ethnic identity was a huge part of both wrestling and boxing, Coleman
billed himself as “the Hebrew Hercules.” (Frankly, I’ve yet to find anyone who really thinks Coleman had
a significant career – but then again, hype alone helps define this strange enterprise.) In a similar motif,
Canadian wrestler Bob Adessky – who I believe is still alive – was the “Jewish Wonder Boy”; you can
view a 2005 article about him at
http://slam.canoe.ca/Slam/Wrestling/2005/06/02/1068196.html. Abe
Jacobs, a New Zealander, liked to call himself “the world Jewish champion.”

Of course, Bill Goldberg, who wrestled simply as “Goldberg,” became an overnight sensation with World
Championship Wrestling (the now-defunct chief rival of the WWF / WWE) in the late nineties.

A few others:

* Paul Heyman founded the Philadelphia-based cult promotion ECW (which first stood for Eastern
Championship Wrestling, then Extreme Championship Wrestling). In its nineties heyday, ECW pioneered
the heavy use of chair shots, foreign objects, and blood, and appeals to the young-male demographic,
all of which remain prevalent.

* Dave Meltzer publishes the
Wrestling Observer Newsletter, which is not only the No. 1 publication in its
field, but may be the most exhaustively thorough trade newsletter of any industry. Meltzer also now
writes a regular column on mixed martial arts for the
Los Angeles Times.

* Willie Gilzenberg was a partner of Vincent J. McMahon in the old World Wide Wrestling Federation.

* Morris Sigel was an important promoter in Texas.

* “Maniac" Mark Lewin had a tremendous run at Madison Square Garden in the late fifties and early
sixties. Lewin also had two wrestling brothers.

* Ernie Roth was one of the all-time great “managers” (non-wrestlers who are mouthpieces for villain
wrestlers in their TV interviews, in addition to carrying on at ringside during matches). In New York in the
seventies and early eighties, he was the colorful  “Grand Wizard of Wrestling.” Previously, in the Detroit
territory of Ed Farhat, a legitimate Lebanese-American who found a gold-mine gimmick as “The Sheik of
Araby” – never uttering a word, hardly doing any wrestling, but reliably delivering blood and mayhem –
Roth, billed as “Abdullah Farouk,” served as The Sheik’s manager. Perversely, another manager of The
Sheik's was also a real-life Jew, Eddie “The Brain” Creatchman.

And on and on …

And is it credit or blame we should be giving them?

The answer is clear: both. As you can see in these examples, we’re talking about master manipulators of
mass psychology. But this ain’t “Masterpiece Theatre,” much less the epitome of the Greco-Roman
athletic tradition.

Is there anything in either the business or the sport or the (forgive me) aesthetic of pro
wrestling that is explicitly or implicitly Jewish?

I mostly like to leave questions like this to the French semioticians and the eggheads – Roland Barthes
or Professor Hieronymous Buttocks. I suppose you could say that wrestling’s sense of camp stretches all
the way back to the Wise Men of Chelm. There’s also something lawyerly, even Talmudic, about the way
wrestling turns the conventional algorithm of sports on its head. The escapist appeal of legit athletic
competition is premised in objectivity, in the notion that there are well-defined rules yielding a winner and
a loser. But wrestling deliberately loops its storylines with chicanery and ambiguity: the pinfall slyly
leveraged with a foot on the ropes, the stipulations of the Steel Cage Match breached by a third party,
the referee alternately useless or corrupt.

My book is not a work of nostalgia. Still, at my launch reading at Black Oak Books in Berkeley, I was
struck by the number of transplanted Northeasterners in the crowd – Jews mostly – with fond memories
of the ethnic-immigrant TV passion plays of their youth. Philip Roth once said that 90 percent of us
masturbate and the other 10 percent lie about it. The same is true, it seems, for the relationship
between intellectuals, real or manqué, and this lowest of the low-brow arts.