Examining Dave Meltzer's Early Career, Impact on Pro Wrestling Industry

Ryan Dilbert@@ryandilbertWWE Lead WriterMay 26, 2016

Photo courtesy of Dave Meltzer

Pro wrestling's closed curtain held a treasure trove of secrets; Dave Meltzer peeled that curtain open, busily scribbling notes about what he saw.

The veteran journalist has covered wrestling for decades, sharing the backstage machinations of a once closed-mouth industry with his readers. Behind-the-scenes politics, storylines in the works and the business side of the squared circle were all fair game.

"I was just out looking to tell the truth about wrestling," Meltzer told Bleacher Report.

Meltzer's Wrestling Observer Newsletter remains a key source for wrestling news. The business it has long covered has changed—and so has the publication itself.

Rather than in a printed bulletin, fans can now read news updates on Figure 4 Online. Meltzer teams with Bryan Alvarez to bring fans up to speed on the Wrestling Observer Live radio show.

The man who will be honored with the National Wrestling Hall of Fame Jim Melby Award in July has become a part of the wrestling industry in more ways than just serving as a correspondent. 

Meltzer popularized the five-star match rating system that Jim Cornette and Norm Dooley devised. It's influential enough that wrestlers are fully aware of the ratings and may even take pride in scoring high.

In Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling, Bret Hart wrote of a bout against Booker T that earned a good score even though he was working hurt. "I was pleased to see that despite my groin injury, Meltzer had rated it a four-star match," Hart wrote.

Wrestlers have since named maneuvers after him. The Young Bucks flatten foes with an attack named the Meltzer Driver.

All of this began with Meltzer treating wrestling coverage as he would treat anything else. "I cover UFC and WWE the exact same way. If I was covering the NFL, I would cover it the exact same way," he said, "At the end of the day, it's all business."

Starting Off

Much like wrestlers who begin trying out headlocks and bodyslams on their brothers at an early age, Meltzer's calling emerged when he was a kid. He wasn't content to just be a fan; he wanted to chronicle what he saw inside the squared circle.

Jake Rossen wrote of Meltzer for the New York Times, "By 10, he was publishing a newsletter that received endorsements in the fan club sections of wrestling magazines. Readers would send in a quarter; Meltzer would send them a 24-page booklet covering the latest news."

This was a rudimentary precursor to the Observer, a sign that wrestling coverage was his calling.

He continued that calling at college, writing about wrestling as he studied journalism at San Jose State University. After graduating, Meltzer didn't immediately parlay that into a job, though. Instead, he wrote for newspapers, sticking to sports rather than sports entertainment.

Meltzer wrote for the Wichita Falls Times Record News, among other places.

In the early '80s, though, his wrestling newsletter was beginning to spark interest among fans and wrestlers alike. The industry at the time was closed off, working hard to keep up the facade that the action in the ring wasn't predetermined. Kayfabe was still king.

Yet Meltzer managed to dig his way past the business' natural defenses. Sources allowed him, and subsequently his readers, behind the scenes. 

"It just kind of happened. I started doing the newsletter, and people started talking to me," Meltzer said. 

Some writers saw covering wrestling as below them. Some viewed it as having a stigma attached. Not Meltzer. Even with the industry trying so hard to cloak its secrets, he saw his mission as a simple one.

"You say what's happening and that's that," he explained. "It was no different than if I was covering the movie business or the baseball business."

Digging around in such a secretive world caused a stir. The newsletter was a new, unsettling entity. "There had never quite been anything like what I did. Most people hated it," Meltzer said.

However, its existence allowed more of a flow of information. Wrestling was built around a territory system in those days, agreed-upon borders separating one promotion from the next. The grapplers traveled between them and now so did more news.

Meltzer said of the newsletter, "It was real valuable to the wrestlers of that era because they were always getting lied to by promoters."

The writer was busy blazing a trail, but being a pioneer wasn't exactly what he had in mind. He simply did the job how he thought it should be done.

"It wasn't like it was like, 'Oh, I'm going to change the business.' I was just covering it how would I cover anything else," he explained.

The Newsletter

As Meltzer wrote, researched and talked to sources throughout the day, sometimes his ear would be in absolute pain as the evening approached, having been pressed to the side of his head under a telephone receiver.

Tracking results of wrestling cards and collecting information, he took part in a grueling grind. It paid off.

By 1985, Meltzer said that the Wrestling Observer Newsletter was in a good number of wrestlers' and promoters' hands. "Everybody was reading it," he said. That included Eddie Graham, who ruled the Florida wrestling landscape, and Bill Watts, who ran Mid-South Wrestling. 

Bill Watts at work.
Bill Watts at work.Credit: WWE.com (Courtesy of Pro Wrestling Illustrated)

Meltzer had a good relationship with Watts and with Paul Boesch out of Houston. 

Of how men in control of wrestling territories felt about his publication, Meltzer said, "I don't think they liked the idea of it. They all read it." He continued, "They were negative of the concept of it, but they weren't negative about it, really."

There was a stigma around the newsletter in some places but not others. This was an alien object floating around the wrestling world. 

When Hall of Famer Terry Funk first saw the Observer, he foresaw it changing his business.

In Terry Funk: More Than Just Hardcore, Funk wrote of Meltzer and of the thoughts swimming in his head as he held the typed bulletin in his hand:

I immediately thought that this thing was going to take off. There would be no stopping it. Instead of talking about the matches as if they were real competitions, like the newsstand magazines had one, Dave Meltzer wrote about the business behind the scenes. It had news and results from all over, and was obviously written about someone who understood the business.

Like many wrestlers, Funk saw Meltzer's publication as a means to learn more about happenings occurring miles away. "I saw it as a thermometer of sorts, to see how different things were getting over in different places," he wrote.

Funk was right about the newsletter's future. It became the preeminent wrestling publication. A long-running periodical, morphing from a typed bulletin into a website boasting a wealth of history and insider information. 

In the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, Meltzer covered wrestling's biggest stories, its black eyes and tragedies included. He was the go-to source during WWE's steroid scandal in the '90s, the infamous Montreal Screwjob of 1997 and during the too-frequent untimely deaths of so many wrestlers.

The Evolution of the Business

As much as the explosion of the Internet changed both the wrestling industry itself and how it was covered, Meltzer's job hasn't changed all that much. 

Phone calls have largely given way to emails. The format of his publication has changed. But the process as a whole? "It's not that different, really," he said.

One area where he feels the most difference is added hesitance from sources. In the past, some insiders spoke to him not believing that word would travel that far. 

Meltzer explained, "There was a feeling that 'OK, you can report it, but only certain people are going to know it.' Now, there are lot more people that will tell me stuff, but it's off the record because if I report it, everyone in the world is going to know it within minutes."

Readers of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter were once a select part of the crowd, the diehards who not only watched and cheered during the matches but read up on it all afterward. That segment of the audience has grown. A myriad of outlets await any ravenous wrestling fan to satisfy their curiosity about rumors, rivalries in the works and backstage disputes.

For wrestlers, there is more of an awareness that critics wait with their fingers ready at the keyboard. 

Meltzer believes that has played a part in the action onscreen. "Everyone's going to work harder because no one wants to be called lazy," he said. "Sometimes they are working so hard that it's not to their benefit. The injury rate is the highest I can recall."

In his mind, there is also a change in how wrestlers seek reaction, a product of a number of factors. 

"The feeling among wrestlers before was let's do a match that will bring people back next week. And now, I think it's let's do a match that will pop people on this night. And those are not the same thing. One style is more risky. One style has more storytelling."

That shift is just one of many that Meltzer has witnessed from his position as observer and reporter. He was covering the wrestling business before Hulkamania exploded, before Roman Reigns was born, before the industry openly acknowledged its scripted nature.

Meltzer witnessed Mark Calaway's rise from rookie to legend, from Mean Mark to Undertaker. Fate helped Calaway make that journey when it found the ideal role for him as the stalking predator known as Undertaker. As Meltzer said, "He would have always been all right with wrestling because he was talented. But there was no guarantee without that gimmick."

Things fell into place for the wrestling writer, too.

He could have easily stuck with sports writing, stayed at the newspaper and not turned his obsession into his profession. Meltzer made more money with his old job. 

"I made the decision at a time when, on paper, it was the dumb decision to make. I thought it was the smart one and turned out to be the smart one," he said.

He couldn't do both sports and wrestling. He couldn't fully invest into the newsletter without letting his newspaper gig go. Luckily, when he made his choice, success followed.

"Wrestling took off. So that's where I ended up," he said. "I decided I'm going to make it work with wrestling. Eventually, I had a few lucky breaks and it did."

Ryan Dilbert is the WWE Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

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