Professional wrestling is not a genuine sport, but it is a genuine industry. I am one of the most experienced and knowledgeable writers on that industry, with more than fifteen years' experience.
Greetings Grapple Fans.
I have previously carried out research for The Sun about premature wrestling deaths. This research has been quoted around the world including on numerous US television networks. I've also assisted on research and publicity for several wrestling organizations including major US group TNA Impact Wrestling.
I have also written obituaries for The Guardian for Jackie Pallo and Mick McManus.
I have written and published two books on the industry. Click on either cover for more details.
I have written hundreds of articles for industry journals and newsletters since 1990. Most notably between 1996-1998 and in 2007 I wrote for PowerSlam, stocked nationally by newsagents. Since 2011 I have written regularly for Fighting Spirit Magazine, another nationally stocked publication, including writing a monthly series interviewing and profiling wrestlers from the World of Sport era. The following is a sample article (text at bottom.)
There are unsubstantiated reports of battle royals in the days of Roman Gladiators, but the earliest recorded use of the phrase dates back to the 17th century, at which point it referred simply to any large scale conflict or argument, from military engagement to political debate.
In terms of combat sports, though, the battle royal originates in late 19th century boxing. It was a gimmick bout used to liven up a traditional boxing event, and simply featured a group of several pugilists in the ring at once competing to be the last man standing.
With sports still divided along racial lines, such bouts were invariably made up entirely of black performers, often mere children. The matches, although genuine contests, were presented almost as comedic entertainment, with the fighters sometimes wearing blindfolds or hoods. One account has the concept deriving from slaves being forced to battle for their owners' entertainment several decades earlier in New Orleans, which may be the reason for the alternative spelling "battle royale"/
In his semi-autobiographical novel The Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison's unnamed narrator describes taking part in such a battle: "Everyone fought hysterically. It was complete anarchy. Everybody fought everybody else. No group fought together for long. Two, three, four, fought one, then turned to fight each other, were themselves attacked. Blows landed below the belt and in the kidney, with the gloves open as well
The adoption of the concept into pro wrestling was a slow process. At first wrestling matches -- quite possibly legitimate contests -- would be a special undercard attraction on a boxing event alongside a battle royal. Once worked wrestling became popular enough to be a show in itself, many promoters would still include a boxing battle royal as a gimmick match: even a 1934 world title match between Jim Browning and Ed Don George featured a "negro battle royale" on the undercard.
Indeed, a 1931 show in Tuscaloosa that was the first in its area to use the "anything goes" wrestling style (a marketing term that explained greater use of submissions and a more outlandish in-ring product) made a point of noting that there would be no battle royal. The implication was that black youths beating each other up had been a gimmick used to liven up more refined wrestling and was no longer needed. By this point some of the boxers appear to have been a touring attraction similar to Jack Britton's midgets or the Fabulous Moolah's women: a 1941 report referred to a promoter bringing in "Booker T's negro paperweights", clearly a reference to an undersized, likely young troupe of fighters.
The battle royal as a wrestling match began in the early 1930s, with a 10 March 1932 show in Galveston, Texas seemingly the earliest on record. It wasn't the match we know today, but rather a match where multiple men competed with elimination by pinfall or submission. The concept soon caught on across the country (sometimes renamed a "wrestle royal", presumably to avoid confusion), though the home of the battle royale in the pre-war period was undoubtedly Lake Worth, Florida, which not only held such matches regularly, but tried out variations where the wrestlers wore blindfolds, or competed in a ring filled with mud, snow, tomatoes or even dead fish.
It seems it wasn't until 1955 that the over-the-top-rope elimination style began, with Canada's Stampede promotion running such a bout on 15 December in Regina, and six days later in Saskatoon. The same rules were also used in Billings, Montana on 20 December, which may have been a case of local promoter Tex Hager taking a lead from his neighbours.
Bob Leonard, who began working on promotion for Stampede two years later says its uncertain if Stampede developed the over-the-top-rope rules or took the idea from elsewhere. He notes the bouts were promoted as "Texas Rules", though this isn't necessarily conclusive: that phrase had been used across North America since at least the 1930s whenever a promoter wanted an excuse to use unusual stipulations (such as a no holds barred match, or a tag team tornado contest with all four men in the ring at once.)
The new rules quickly spread nationwide, not least because the style was more compatible with having many more men in the match, allowing promoters to hype up the total poundage in the ring. In some territories the battle royal would open the show and the order of elimination would determine the matches for the rest of the night.
In most areas though, the battle royal was the headline act, none more so than when Andre the Giant was in town. Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s Andre was one of the few men who was booked in the same way as the world champion, visiting territories for only a week or two at a time, the idea being to avoid overexposure. Given his size and promotional status, one-on-one matches were simply implausible with all but the top heels, so Andre's visit usually involved a mix of tag matches, handicap bouts and an appearance in a battle royal at the main venue. Although it's certainly not the case that he was unbeaten in such matches, he likely had a higher winning percentage than any other grappler.
Although most territories ran a battle royale whenever they'd booked Andre or simply needed a short-term boost, things were different in California. San Francisco promoter Roy Shire ran the biggest battle royale of the year, starting in November of 1967-69 and then every January (previously a slow period) from 1972 through to 81, a model copied with some success by promoters in Los Angeles.
The San Francisco battle royales at the Cow Palace arena were treated as one of the biggest nights of the year, with several stars from other territories brought in for the night. Shires used numerous promotional tactics for the match that later inspired California grappler Pat Patterson to create the Royal Rumble event when he became a WWE booker. Wrestlers would openly lobby to be among the 22 men in the match; new competitors would be announced each week to prolong the build-up; rivals would salivate at the chance to fight each other without restrictive rules; and tag partners would team dissent in an every man for himself mindset. Announcers would hype up the risk of serious injury, which frequently came to pass for contestants who were secretly scheduled to leave the territory around that time.
So why would wrestlers, in storyline at least, risk such injury in a match where the odds of winning were slim? The answer was simple: the cash prize. In the initial years, the winner in San Francisco received $10,000, which rose to $25,000 when the event returned in the 1970s. At today's prices that's equivalent to around $125,000 (£80,000), and back then it was what the average American made in two-and-a-half years.
With Shire a stickler for credibility, there was a public explanation for the cash bonanza. Each entrant was said to have paid a $1,000 entry fee towards the prize, leaving the promotion chipping in $7,000, a plausible figure given the inevitable success at the box office.
The same couldn't be said in many other promotions, particularly those that would run a nightly series of battle royal main events even at their smallest venues. Those fans who took the time to look at the size of the crowd and the ticket pricing could soon figure out the numbers didn't always add up. Indeed, by the 1980s the more cynical wrestling writers had begun referring to "AWA battle royal dollars" as being a standalone currency.
But not only did many fans not question the prize, sometimes even family members were fooled. Percy Pringle (Paul Bearer) tells the story of a mid-70s Missouri run managing James "Kamala" Harris, whose wife was unaware of how wrestling worked, and frequently took issue with Harris for allowing himself to be abused by the villainous Pringle, even refusing to let Harris in the house after the most humiliating incidents.
Things came to a head when Harris won a televised battle royale for a supposed $5,000 and returned home to find his wife had watched the match. "As he pulled into his muddy driveway, there she was, with all her friends. It was party time: hell after all her husband had just won $5000 by beating up 12 men. 'Let me see it James,' [his] wife commanded, 'The $5000 you won on TV, I want to see it!'
"James tried to tell her he didn’t get any money. Well boys… it was back across the street to the lumberyard, to spend another cold wet night! Needless to say, the next morning, I believe Mr. James Harris finally decided it was time for Mrs. James Harris to get smartened up, if you will."
Sometimes, however, the illusion proved to be the promoter's downfall. Austin Idol was once making a passing visit through Columbus, Georgia and took a date for Fred Ward, a promoter he considered less than honest when it came to promised payoffs. Having surprisingly been given the nod to win a battle royale despite his imminent departure, Idol proudly accepted the "winner's check" from Ward in the ring, then returned to the dressing room where he expected to be asked to return it to the promoter.
"Before I got in the shower, I reached in and looked at the check... it was made out to Austin Idol and it was five thousand bucks, and it was signed [by] Fred Ward. [I thought] 'Well, that's interesting.' I just took the check and kept it."
A few weeks later, "the more I thought about it, the more I thought 'You know what, all the money this guy has stolen from so many wrestlers... It's justice.' Idol walked into a local bank where, although not a customer, he was recognised by staff under his in-ring name and successfully cashed the check for $5,000 in hundred dollar bills. "I'm not a thief, but I felt real good about that." Ward, of course, was unable to protest the payment as doing so would expose the business.
Some promoters were a little smarter, leading to an embarrassing incident for Izzy Slapowitz, a manager who worked for the ICW promotion run by Randy Savage's father: "Once I won a Battle Royal in Frankfurt, Kentucky and they presented the check to me in the ring and as I was leaving the ring it fell out of my tights and a fan picked it up, Of course there was 'VOID' written across the check. We explained it by saying that the ring check was only ceremonial and that I would receive the real check from the promoter in a few days... Let me tell you, it would be a cold day in hell before Angelo Poffo would have written a [valid] check to any of the boys for $10,000."
The prize didn't always come in the form of a check, however. Some promotions would present a sackful of cash, with heel victors running for the hills, while babyface winners would begin throwing cash to the fans, albeit only in the form of one-dollar bills that totalled far less than the billed amount. (A similar incident after a handicap match in Memphis was the last of its kind after the crowd stormed the ring to grab the money, with Jim Cornette knocked spark out by one overenthusiastic fan.)
Sometimes the prize wouldn't be money at all, but rather a new car such as a Lincoln or Cadillac borrowed from a local dealer in return for publicity. That could cause problems if the winner remained in the territory and was seen by fans driving a less valuable vehicle, though in some cases promoters would simply book a battle royale when a top star had just bought a new car: naturally said star would win the event.
In other cases the prizes were more symbolic. Throughout the late 80s the NWA held an annual series of Bunkhouse Stampedes (battle royales where contestants could wear and carry whatever they liked) with the winner of each event getting a cash prize and qualifying for a grand final; the winner of that merely received a oversized statue of a bronze cowboy boot. As booker Dusty Rhodes won every year, it seems such a trophy was to his taste.
Perhaps the strangest prize came in 1991 when the WWF held a battle royal at the Royal Albert Hall, with winner Davey Boy Smith taking the "coveted Royal Samovar trophy", the connection between wrestling and a Russian tea urn never being fully explained.
Indeed, trophies could prove problematic in battle royales. With the winner of one such match at WrestleMania IV scheduled to take home a ludicrously over-sized and flimsy-looking trophy, it was clear it would take several referees to manoeuvre it into the ring for the presentation. Unfortunately a dry run the day before the event ended in catastrophe when the referees dropped and broke the trophy. They panicked and hired a local welder to repair the damage, which certainly did the trick; the only drawback became clear live on PPV when Bret Hart's scheduled demolition of the trophy in a post-match rage proved embarrassingly difficult.
That said, there was plenty of room for debacles during matches themselves. Wrestling historian Mike Norris recalls a show in a small Georgia town where the crowd was particularly unresponsive: "They finally got a little warmed up during the Battle Royal until they made the announcement from the concession stand that the hot dogs were going for half price. Billy Spears held up his hands and yelled 'Stop! Let's all go get hot dogs!' Everyone jumped over the top rope to eliminate themselves. Killed the town dead."
More recently, a disgruntled Gail Kim reacted badly to being told to get eliminated quickly from a Diva battle royale on WWE Raw and simply left the ring under her own power. To her surprise she received no criticism for the move, which she later realised was because nobody in authority had been paying close attention to the match.
Such japery, along with the counterpart tactic of doing as little as possible in a battle royale, became much easier to get away with as the number of contestants grew. As early as 1973, promoters in Toronto were running a two-ring affair with the winners meeting for a cash prize, while in 1978 Jerry Lawler won a 50-man event in Memphis.
The WWF record was set in 1992 with a series of 40-man matches, which appears to have inspired the 41-man events at recent Smackdown tapings. WCW went bigger with its annual World War III pay-per-view in the late 1990s when three-ring 60-man match saw the likes of Big Train Bart, Jack Boot, Max Muscle, Tony Rumble and Mark Starr earning PPV bonuses.
For many years the record was held by the Windy City Pro Wrestling group in Illinois which held a 120-person three-ring match at its Battle of the Belts 2000 show. While all the competitors (including a 19-year-old El Zapatista who'd later become ROH manager Larry Sweeney) were aware of how pro wrestling worked, the barrier to entry appeared to be at an all-time low even by indy wrestling standards. That match was finally topped last June when the California-based Alternative Wrestling Show topped its farewell event with a 159-person battle royal won by Scorpio Sky.
Although Japan played host to a 108-man rumble match that ran on New Year's Eve 2009 (and into 2010), generally its battle royales are smaller affairs. The only such matches to take place regularly come on All Japan's first January dates at Korakuen Hall with a junior-heavyweight and heavyweight battle royal on successive nights. These are under pinfall elimination rules and not taken entirely seriously, with many of those pinned being buried under a sea of bodies, playground "bundle" style. The all-time highlight came in 1998 when Skull Von Krush (later WCW and WWE's Vito) got carried away with the hijinks and pinned reigning Triple-Crown champion Mitsuharu Misawa -- an elimination not exactly in keeping with the company's strict pecking order.
The same issue of hierarchy certainly applies in the UK where, although battle royales first popped up regularly in the late 1970s, the match became particularly popular once promoters started tapping in to the market created by WWE broadcasts in the 1990s. As well as being a simple way to get an extra match at the end of a show (allowing night-long storylines with wronged babyfaces seeking revenge), battle royals and rumbles on the British scene are also a traditional starting point for trainees, particularly those who have been guaranteed to get at least one pro match.
One such trainee, Adam "AJ Hazard" Pacitti is portrayed undergoing such an experience in the recently-released YouTube documentary Pinfall, which concludes with his debut in a rumble match for Premier Promotions. Pacitti explains that the setting made more sense than another considered option of a tag contest: "The good thing about the rumble match is you've got the 'every man for himself' element, meaning I didn't have to worry about heel/face dynamic with the exception of the opening few minutes. The other good thing about the rumble was not having to worry too much about any major spots as the ring quickly fills and it's more of a 'brawl' than a technical match, which was a bit easier."
The documentary also shows Pacitti's first training session where, contrary to expectations, the first move he learns is taking hard chops. It proved an appropriate lesson given the events of the rumble, which will be a familiar story to many first-time UK grapplers. "I wasn't expecting them to go easy on me and I had been warned about the fact it may turn in to a bit of an initiation and it certainly felt like it. I was in the ring for around ten minutes and they did seem to be taking turns with the chops, but that's pretty much what I was expecting. I like to think I gained their respect by taking so much punishment."
In some ways then, the battle royal has changed little in the past 130 years: it remains a gimmick attraction combining comedy and aggression with lowly-paid youngsters often taking physical abuse. But perhaps losing the inherent racism and changing the inevitable consequences from serious injury to survivable pain is at least a small measure of progress.