The Wrestler (1974) Film Synopsis and Review

And now I am going to jump completely out of my comfort zone of mid-80s WWF and not even watch a wrestling show, but rather a movie. No, it’s not No Holds Barred. It’s not even the more famous “The Wrestler” from 2008 starring Mickey Rourke, or as I knew him: “that dude from 9 1/2 Weeks”.

This “The Wrestler” was an independent film released in 1974 by Verne Gagne, the longtime owner and champion of the American Wrestling Association based out of Minnesota. At the time of the movie’s release, Gagne was in year 6 of a long title reign and was nearly 48 years old. And therein lies the premise of this somewhat autobiographical film: the promoter (played by Ed Asner) feels Gagne is too old and wants him to step aside to make way for a new champion (played by British shooter Billy Robinson). There are tons of cameos from active wrestlers, including Ric Flair who LIVED that “too old” storyline so many times. As it is 1974, the movie is done entirely in kayfabe.

  • The first person you see is Larry “the Ax” Hennig as himself which was the case for just about everyone in the movie. The exceptions are Verne, who plays Mike Bullard (which sounds more like an NHL name because someone by that name scored 50 goals in 1984), and Robinson, who plays Billy Taylor (very creative, huh?)
  • The match clips between Hennig and Bullard are filmed through a smoky haze and you literally can’t see much of anything.
  • The promoter Frank Bass (Asner) appears and narrates a match as Bullard is in trouble but eventually prevails. He explains how the champ still wins, but without the same dominance as in the past. Bullard wins the match as the opening titles run.
  • Debbie the secretary answers the phones (“Hello, wrestling office!”) and yells that it’s Jim Barnett from Australia. The Crusher and Bruiser march in and pick her up out of her chair and some flirting ensues. Poorly. Crusher and Bruiser need to get their Japan travel resolved, which is why they stopped in.
  • Why does it seem like this script is just overflowing with name drops in the first 10 minutes? “Yes, Superstar Graham and Wahoo are in the main event!”
  • Bass meets with Betty Bullard (Mike’s wife) and she is concerned because a wrestler the same age as her husband just died in the ring. She is firmly established as something of a wet blanket, a proto-Adrian Balboa. They then watch film of some potential opponents for Bullard if he “crosses leagues” as they put it. One of the possible opponents is Dory Funk Jr. They discuss this “Super Bowl of Wrestling” which is being bandied about.
    • There would be a Super Bowl of Wrestling actually held in the 1970s, one before this movie and one a few years later. Ironically, neither Verne nor anyone from the AWA took part.
    • I can’t imagine how fast the NFL would be on the ass of someone trying to promote an event with that name. 10 seconds? 5 seconds?
  • I wish I could say I lived my life without seeing Ed Asner lying down in a sauna, only wearing a red towel. I really wish I still could. A guy comes in and wants to get into the wrestling business and take bets, etc. Crusher and Bruiser march in and that is put to a halt.
  • Lord James Blears comes in for a visit with Bass, presumbly to remind me how many fucking bald white guys were wrestlers during the time period. Blears passed away in 2016 at age 92. They are trying to figure out a proper opponent for Bullard and watch some film on Billy Taylor, who is called “the most scientific wrestler in the world”.
  • They go down to a gym where Taylor is at (and Ken Patera too, just lifting weights), and he’s dominating some schmuck with a series of amateur moves. They want him to face Nick Bockwinkel at a benefit show since Bullard isn’t in country. This would be Taylor’s test to see if he could face Bullard. Bass is so smitten and declares Taylor the greatest wrestler he’s ever seen and decides he wants him as his new champion.
  • Superstar Graham appears on a TV screen cutting a promo about how professional wrestling is about pain. Shit, there is no one more appropriate to deliver THAT message.
    • We then get footage of a match between Graham and Wahoo and the way it’s shot almost makes me long for Kevin Dunn. Almost. Everything is show so close up or in a way that you can’t see anything. The best was a little person taunting other fans after the finish.
  • Bullard is getting his blood pressure taken (presumably per the athletic commission) and Graham comes in all pissed about the blood on his face.
    • Verne could have done himself a lot of good by getting rid of the body hair, but it was the 1970s so that was probably some sort of currency to have a hairy chest.
  • The lighting on these matches is so dark that it makes pre-2014 Ring of Honor look like an H-bomb test by comparison.
  • Nice shot of Ray Stevens doing the Ray Stevens bump, though. Everyone who was there swears that Stevens was one of the greatest workers of all time, but the footage is so limited that people now will never know for sure. Stevens looks to get a win with the Bombs Away move from the top rope….but it turns out that he KILLED the guy. AND THEY ANNOUNCE THIS TO THE LIVE AUDIENCE. (BTW, Stevens was actually DQ’d for using the top rope. Hey, just like Bill Watts’ 1992 WCW!)
    • I am presuming that there is no freak out because it was just a different time. A guy died in the ring, and they announce it to the crowd like it’s a time limit draw. Ho hum.
    • The guys sit around and talk about how the death will not be in the obituaries, while other trivial stuff is reported in the papers. Ha, if they only know the kind of shit storms wrestler deaths would create about 25-30 years down the road….
    • The conversation is hewing very close to the 1970s lines of kayfabe, with the newspaper guy saying that “its entertainment, that’s all it is” and that it should be on the same pages as the theater. Bass rattles off a laundry list of guys who died in the ring, including Mike DiBiase (Ted’s stepfather) who had suffered a heart attack in the ring in 1969. He then makes the case of them being true athletes, but not quite as direct as those WWF ads in the late 90s.
    • Bass quotes 40 million people as being wrestling fans, which while maybe not totally accurate, it is true that far more people watched wrestling in the 1970s and early 80s than do right now in 2017.
  • Frank gets hassled by three other promoters trying to strong arm him and he starts to realize that jobbing out Bullard would be a bad thing for him in the end.
  • Aside: I’m watching this on YouTube via an app on my 2012 Samsung Smart TV. The user interface on it is great, but the fact that the movie halts every 10-12 minutes and I have to re-start and FF back to the spot is very annoying. I gave up after the third time and have gone back to streaming through the Roku stick (which I had to buy since WWE Network didn’t have an app at the time in 2014).
  • So Bullard calls the office and Debbie the secretary blabs about how Billy Taylor is coming in to replace him. Bass starts to feel trapped because he still feels loyalty to his current champion and feels bad about how he had wanted to move on.
  • And now Dusty Rhodes calls. Of course he’s with Dick Murdoch, he says. Dusty was still a heel at this point in his career but would turn babyface later in 1974 and would never go back. Dusty is funny in how he blows off the call without really listening.
    • Some dude calls out to Murdoch and says he’s a big phony. I love how that goes down; looking at Murdoch and saying “you know, I want to fight that guy”. Back in those days, there wasn’t the 145 lb guy trained in Brazilian ju-jitsu so it was more clear who you wouldn’t want to challenge.
    • Now another guy comes in and it’s Oddjob from the Bond movie Goldfinger. He just so happens to be the guy who Mr. Fuji was patterned after as a manager. Oddjob busts up the table, but Murdoch and Dusty walk away and sit at another table so as to not cause trouble….and Oddjob does it again.
    • Now the Texas Outlaws are set to fight. Murdoch puts one guy through a table and Oddjob through a pinball machine. In the end, Dusty pops up with two beers and a big smile on his face and they pour it into a hat and put it on another guy’s head.
  • Mike and Frank play tennis and go over the plans for the Super Bowl of Wrestling. Mike seems rather unconcerned with Billy Taylor.
  • We then see an exhibition at the Boys Club between Taylor and Bockwinkel, which is about as good of a 1970s match as you could have had. Bass shouts in that he’s stopping this, and Robinson gives a double underhook suplex on Bock…and it just sort of ends. Alrighty.
  • Bullard talks to Taylor in the locker room and wants Taylor to come in as a trainer for his guys. Well, that’s one way of trying to neutralize the threat. But in the next scene Bullard is watching film on Taylor as his wet blanket wife wants him to retire.
    • Betty wants him to do the Ric Flair 2007-08 gimmick and retire once he loses another match.
  • Mike has some trainees in and brings in Dan Gable to demonstrate some holds on Mike Graham and he is way more cooperative here than he was with Jushin Liger on Starrcade 1991. Then Taylor gets in with Jim Brunzell to show holds. Brunzell aged pretty well, I would have never guessed in 1988 that he had been around that long and was that old.
    • This scene is a bit too long, like real life Verne effectively just getting himself off narrating regular basic holds.
    • And now it’s Wilbur Snyder and Eddie Graham. Feel free to go take a piss at this point in the movie. At least they have now moved on to the history of wrestling holds. “George Washington used them!”
    • It sounds like Verne Gagne is channeling the Linus speech in Charlie Brown Christmas. “I can tell you what wrestling is all about.”
  • Bullard just casually lets it slip at dinner with Taylor that he plans to retire soon. Oh and Ric Flair is at the table too but doesn’t say anything.
  • Taylor is with the secretary and does the move where he says “I would have asked you to dinner, but you gave that look!” Oh you sly dog, Billy. Meanwhile Bass is off to St. Louis to meet with other promoters on the Super Bowl of Wrestling show and they are LITERALLY booking by the pool.
  • The others tell Frank that Mike is too old. Bass says that Dory Funk Jr. is bald, but the retort is that he’s only 32.
    Vince Senior sighting!
    • Next to Bass is Vince McMahon Sr., who is trying to reason with Frank to get a younger guy and finally Bass relents and agrees to send Billy Taylor.
  • Now is a match between Taylor and Ray Stevens with Bullard looking on. Taylor prevails with a pretty good looking backbreaker and signs some autographs after the match.
  • Out at a nightclub, Frank tells Debbie about the pressure he is under to find someone who can beat Bullard. Some mob guys come in and one puts his cigar out in Bass’ food.
    • This is really a mindbender. You have mob guys making bets on a predetermined event that is being presented as real as the promoter kvetches about having to make a choice.

      Totally settled for Ed Asner
  • The point where Bass starts really macking it to Debbie the secretary is a bit much. She says she loves him and wishes he felt the same way. She is FAR too good looking to be settling for a guy who looks like Ed Asner in 1974. And one who is a WRESTLING PROMOTER.
    • “I’m afraid if I love you all the way….no holds barred…” HA! One autobiographical wrestling movie meets another.
    • As Bass leaves, he rings the bell again and says he never got his coffee and they kiss.
  • In Bass’ office, Taylor challenges Bullard face to face to a title match. Bullard laughs in his face and says he’s not a top contender and that it wouldn’t sell tickets. Bass rightly proposes building up Taylor quickly before the match.
    • Bullard comes off as a total dick here; he doesn’t want to wrestle anyone, claims an ankle injury, etc. Then he walks out in the middle.
  • Dusty and Murdoch are back again to lift our spirits with a funny promo on the TV that Bullard is watching. By the way, the fireplace behind Bullard is WAY too active. Like the house is going to go up in flames any second active. Bullard now thinks that Bass is out to screw him because a Taylor-Bullard match was announced on TV.
  • Now when Bass comes to visit Bullard, he’s not mad at all saying that he wrestles and Bass promotes. So Taylor-Bullard is a go.
  • The mob guys kidnap Debbie somehow and want her as insurance that Bullard will lose. They rough Bass up to send their message. “Tell Bullard if he wins, you will die!”
    • They ask Debbie not to wipe the blood so Bullard can see the proof. But here is the Bruiser and Crusher to the rescue, and they beat the hell out of the mob guys in a fun sequence.
    • Bullard sees Bass all banged up and they explain the situation. Bullard is not Han Solo because he actually wants to be told what the odds are.
  • I hope Bullard remembers that only John Cena is allowed to do the “YEA/BOO” thing for the final match.
  • Both guys get decent face pops, so I guess Taylor wasn’t built as a heel or anything like that. After all, he is purely technical.
  • Bullard is getting dominated big time, getting locked in a full nelson, having his leg worked over, abdominal stretch….meanwhile, he’s had almost no offense at all beyond counters.

    Old man dropkick incoming
  • Taylor gets a Native American Death Lock cinched in tight but lets go for whatever reason and does get a suplex. They cut to Taylor earlier in Bass’ office saying “nobody’s gonna hit me with a dropkick!” Then Bullard’s feet come into the air and it hits the camera….and that’s it. Huh. That’s an odd ending. Unlike Hogan, I guess Verne isn’t desperate for that visual pinfall.

Summary: I did like this movie for the first 30-35 minutes. It gets a little tedious with all the Ed Asner involvement. This movie probably should have been called The Promoter instead of the wrestler. Verne’s character isn’t really likable at all; he’s just an old guy keeping his spot and doing what he can to keep the younger guys down. Hmmm. That sounds like a familiar story.

And the secretary falling for Frank Bass was so implausible that it actually made me mad. However, this is still something wrestling fans should see once, if only for the brilliant Dusty Rhodes/Dick Murdoch scenes. Honorable mention to the Bruiser and the Crusher.

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