Wrestling History 101: Welcome to the Territories – a brief history

Wrestling History 101

As a former history major, I think it’s always good to know where we came from and our history (sometimes, if nothing more, to hopefully learn from our mistakes). Before our journey begins, you have to be wondering what the Territories were, so let me explain and bring you up to speed, so you’ll know what the heck we old dudes are talking about.

The Territories were the promotions under the umbrella of the National Wrestling Alliance founded in the late 1940s. Several members, including Verne Gagne’s AWA, Toots Mondt, and Vincent J. McMahon’s CWC/WWWF, would later split over a dispute about the NWA World Heavyweight Title and crown their own champions (more on that later). However, they would also maintain a friendly relationship with the NWA, including still having a seat at the table at NWA meetings.

The NWA was founded to make one central champion, a World Champion, instead of the many regional champions that the many promotions had. The NWA World Champion would be decided by a meeting of the Board Governors (basically a vote of all the promoters). He would defend the title around the country in different promotions against their main star/attraction (usually the promotion’s champion or tournament winner). At times, some champions tended to defend the World Title in one area leading to some seeing less of the champion. This usually was because one promoter would try to keep his star attraction closer to his territory to avoid losing box office receipts. Of course, this caused hurt feelings and disputes and led to many promotions either breaking off or declare their own champion.

Lou Thesz, the NWA World Champion, had beaten Buddy Rogers in CWC/WWWF, but Mondt and McMahon did not consider him a draw. Hence, they decided to break off and create WWWF and declare Rogers the 1st WWWF Champion following a fictitious match. Lou Thesz was supposed to be in town to unify the NWA title. Thesz, of course, didn’t show up (he wasn’t booked, to begin with), leading to a forfeit. Rogers was declared Champion.

Thesz also had a controversial finish to his title defense against Édouard Carpentier. Many promotions recognized Carpentier as the Champion. Carpentier would then go on a losing streak in these promotions that several World Champions were crowned from. Verne Gagne in Minneapolis (how the AWA was later formed) and Classy Freddie Blassie in Los Angeles also went this route. But overall, most promotions recognized the one true NWA World Champion. They would push their top guy at the time, and if they got enough board votes at the meeting, they would be named the champion.

Featured above, you can see a map of the Territories.

There were so many, but I can name a few: you have World Class Championship Wrestling (Fritz Von Erich), Southwest (Joe Blanchard) and Houston (Paul Boesch), St. Louis (Sam Muchnick, who served as the NWA President), the Central States in Kansas City, (Bob Geigel), Championship Wrestling from Florida (Eddie Graham), WWWF (Vince McMahon, Sr.), AWA (Verne Gagne), Georgia Championship Wrestling (Jim Barnett), Mid Atlantic Championship Wrestling (Jim Crockett), NWA Mid-America in Tennessee (Nick Gulas, later Jerry Jarrett), Continental/Southeast (Ron Fuller), Portland (Owens), San Francisco (Roy Shire), and Los Angeles (Mike LeBell). Canadian promotions saw Stampede Wrestling (Stu Hart), Grand Prix (Emile Dupree), and Toronto/Montreal (Frank and Jack Tunney). Also, Hawaii and the Japanese promotions fell under the NWA umbrella or had seats at the table at one point.

You have probably heard Jim Cornette scream “Outlaw Mud Wrestling” at the top of his lungs at AEW, GCW, and whomever else draws his criticism for the week. It actually has historical meaning. There would be promoters (sometimes ex-wrestlers or someone wanting to make a buck) that would try to run shows without the blessing of the main promotion in the area. The most prominent bylaw in the NWA was not to run shows in another promoter’s territory without permission. A rare (and nasty) time was when the original owner of Georgia Championship Wrestling passed away and left the promotion to his wife, the other promoters helped run her out of business, helping Barnett overtake the territory. Running in an established territory would draw the ire of the other promotions. You could be blackballed, and wrestlers performing for these outlaws could, too… that’s if the promoters didn’t decide to do pull other tactics or cause physical harm! The most famous outlaw promotion was Angelo Poffo’s International Championship Wrestling in Kentucky.

In the end, fewer and fewer territories would remain in the early to late ’80s, either bought out by others, run out, or bought out by Vincent K. McMahon during his national expansion of WWF/E.

The USWA (Jarrett and Lawler) was one of the last remaining well into the ’90s with the help of WWF, who would partner with WWF to give talent an experience before heading to the main roster. This was a precursor to their developmental company. In the end, Territories died due to the small talent pools, the expansion of cable television, and the squabbles among promotions trying to fight Vince McMahon. Others grew weary of the fight.

I wanted to first get a little history out of the way to have a small understanding of what the heck the Territories were. You’ll also gain an understanding of why a lot of us who grew up with that system reminisce of those times when talent was exchanged. There were no tribes or tribal disputes of “we’re better than this one” (helped to have no internet also).

I hope you join me in the coming months as I take you through some of the territories that I can share, sometimes it may be centered around Memphis (the promotion I had the most access to). Other times, it may be a classic card or TV show. Other times, it may be a star or stars from that era or a special event from a particular time.

Lookout in October for Mr. Halloween’s “From The Graveyard,” a feature of the Monsters and Weirdoes of Professional Wrestling, including a look at the Saturday Morning Event, held only once. In November, be on the lookout as I look at some promotions’ last and final attempt to take Vince McMahon in SuperClash III. Also, be on the lookout for possible future podcasts if things work out about various topics.

Andrew Elder