Wrestling Booker: Inside the Wrestling Business's Most Challenging Position
When it comes to professional wrestling, former WWE and WCW booker Terry Taylor has pretty much seen it all.
He wrestled the best of the best, including all-time greats like Ric Flair and Ted DiBiase, and he sat in a position of power in both rival companies (WCW and WWE) during one of the most exciting times in wrestling history.
Along the way, Taylor—who wrestled under monikers including Dr. Feelgood and the Red Rooster—had a chance to learn from the brightest booking minds in the industry. For those not hip on insider wrestling lingo, the booker is the man behind the scenes calling the shots. In other industries you might call him the director, the show runner or the head writer. Not wrestling. Wrestling has its own unique patois, a language the grunt-and-groan set can call their own.
In the old days, the booker sat in a smoke-filled room and used coded telegrams along the wire to tell the local promoters on the scene who should go over (win) and who needed to do the job (lose). When there was still the illusion of being real, these bookers would have to be very careful about what they said.
According to Marcus Griffin's groundbreaking book Fall Guys: The Barnums of Bounce, instead of the wrestler's name, bookers like Billy Sandow would use a nickname or the city the wrestler was from to describe him. That way if the messages fell into the wrong hands, there would be no written record of their tomfoolery:
Sandow with his top star Ed "Strangler" Lewis
Code names and terms were used to designate wrestlers and the results of bouts. An agent sent into a town to handle a herd of wrestlers scheduled to appear in a club might receive a wire from a Sandow booker reading:
“GLENDALE GOES THROUGH WITH LEGS STOP MITCH OVER PANAMA THIRTY MINUTES COLLISION STOP CHRIS TOPS DODGE CITY FORTY MINUTES DOCTOR PINS KANGAROO THIRTY AND TIGER UNDER TOOTS.”
Sounds confusing, doesn’t it? Well, the man in charge of the wrestlers knew its meaning. Deciphered it read: “Ray Steele wrestles draw with Fred Grubmier. Rudy Dusek beats Dick Daviscourt, by knocking his head against Daviscourt’s, both falling out of the ring. Dusek returning before the referee can count 10. Jim Londos to beat Joe Stecher in forty minutes, Doctor Karl Sarpolis to beat Tom Alley in thirty minutes and Bill Nelson to be pinned by Toots Mondt as suits Mondt’s inclination.”
Bookers like Sandow and Jack Curley controlled nationwide empires in the days before the boob tube. By the time grapplers owned the new television medium, Fred Kohler ruled the roost thanks to his control of wrestling on the old DuMont Network.
Fast forward to Taylor's day, and the wrestling masterminds were men like Jerry Jarrett, Bill Watts, Vince McMahon and even WCW's Eric Bischoff.
"Bill Dundee was brilliant at that crowd psychology. At crowd manipulation," Taylor told Bleacher Report in an exclusive interview. "When Dundee rode in the car with us, he was working on the finishes for every match on the three- or four-hour trips. I got to hear him talking about the nuts and bolts of the actual finishes, how it would work and what would come next. And how the people would react. He knew exactly how the people would respond."
Mid South exploded under Dundee, with headliners like the Rock and Roll Express, Junkyard Dog and Jim Cornette's Midnight Express leading the territory to creative and business heights. Taylor took the lessons he learned in Mid South during one of the hottest runs in wrestling history with him as he and his peers took the creative reigns in WCW during the promotion's late 1990s glory years.
Dundee had worked closely with Mid South owner Bill Watts to create the overall direction of the company. Teamwork was key for WCW's biggest successes as well, especially the development of one of the decade's biggest stars.
"It was Kevin Sullivan's idea for him not to talk on interviews. It was Mike Tenay's idea to give him a winning streak. All these different factors together—plus Bill Goldberg being a 6'3", 290-pound, intense, physical being who looks like he could kill somebody—people bought it."
Today, the wrestling business is struggling at the box office. The WWE's pay-per-view business has fallen to modern lows and TNA is hanging on for dear life. Ultimately, there is no magic solution to solve all of wrestling problems.
The best bookers aren't beholden to any set formula. It's an art, every bit as much as it's a science. Taylor can't promise success, especially in today's fractured media landscape, where grabbing an audience is half the challenge, holding them enthralled the rest.
"With 500 channels, it's hard just to have two guys in there beating on each other," Taylor says. "There has to be a compelling story behind it. It sounds simple, but the booker has to figure out what would make someone interested in this. The creative part is painting a picture, creating a scenario that compels people to watch. And honestly, the UFC is doing a great job of it.
"They get personal rivalries, they get good physical matchups, they have all these human-interest stories. They magnify them, then put the two talents in a physical confrontation in a cage. It's the same thing wrestling used to do."
Taylor may be out of the business, but wrestling is never far from his thoughts. He recently gave fans a sneak peak into the mind of the booker as part of an innovative DVD series from Kayfabe Commentaries.
Taylor was given the opportunity to re-evaluate Jim Crockett Promotion's 1987 purchase of Mid South (by then called the Universal Wrestling Federation) from Watts. It's an unprecedented chance for fans to get a good feel for how some of wrestling's top creative talents view the business and how they go about creating the stories that end up on Raw, Smackdown or TNA's Impact.
At the time, the UWF wrestlers were seemingly forgotten, extra toys for booker Dusty Rhodes who already had an extremely full toy box. Although Taylor is careful not to criticize Rhodes or the Jim Crockett brass, he does have some interesting ideas for how the UWF invasion might have gone.
"There's three sides to every story. Yours, mine and the truth," Taylor said. "It depends on where you were standing. Big Bubba may have said (the UWF purchase) was the greatest thing that ever happened. He got put in the top mix and he stayed there. I just know that the guys who weren't the main-event guys, we did unification matches and got beat. And that was the end of it. It's their company, they can do what they want. But with 20/20 hindsight, from my point of view, there were more compelling things we could have done."
Some of Taylor's ideas here are breathtaking, grand in scope, while also maintaining an elegant simplicity. Without giving away too much, he has wrestlers literally fighting for their professional lives in a storyline that would have been groundbreaking in 1987 and would still be thrilling if applied today.
In the end, the same basic principles apply no matter how they are packaged on television. The name of the game is getting the audience to come back for more. And though it seems counterintuitive, Taylor believes to do that, you have to make them mad:
"When your territory needs a shot in the arm, conventional booking is to get heat. Make the people so mad that they'll come back to see somebody get righteous. Thwarting evil is what people want to see. But if they see it every week, then there's no need to keep coming back.
"It's a very delicate balance to keep people on the edge of their seat, without giving them so much heat that they get disgusted and give up on the babyface ever coming out on top. That's why good bookers are so few and far between."
It's classic advice, but Taylor shows he understands how it applies in 2012, not just how they did it in his 1980s prime.
Don't be surprised if you see him back in the business, sitting behind the scenes and sharing his ideas with Vince McMahon or Dixie Carter somewhere down the road. In the meantime, you can learn at his knee with the Guest Booker with Terry Taylor: The UWF Sale to Crockett at Kayfabe Commentaries.
Jonathan Snowden is the author of Total MMA and The MMA Encyclopedia. His upcoming book Shooters: The Toughest Men in Professional Wrestling, will hit the shelves in June. He's a regular contributor to Bleacher Report.
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