Past OTL Shows

True confessions: Inside the mind of a 'rasslin fan

Behind the scenes with the script-makers

Is it a sport? Pro wrestling in the context of real sports

Sound off: Readers react to issues raised in series


The Rock talks about where the ideas come from
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 Tony Rumble compares wrestling with toy soldiers.
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 Kevin Nash talks about scripting the shows.
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This four-part online series is a companion to an ESPN hour-long show on the same topic. The show re-airs on ESPN Friday at 12:30 a.m. ET (Thursday at 9:30 p.m. PT), and April 8 at 3:30 a.m. ET.

April 2, 1999
Manufacturing an anti-hero

Greg Garber, Special to

Tony Rumble, a.k.a, "The Boston Bay Boy," sits in a Somerville, Mass., bar with a few friends and sees the future.

And make no mistake, when Rumble dreams it up, that's just how it happens. The future, in this case, is a professional wrestling show scheduled 10 days later in Southbridge, Mass.

Rumble is the promoter of the National Wrestling Alliance's New England chapter, the Triple-A of pro wrestling.

"It's just like playing with your G.I. Joes when you're a kid," says Rumble, a 15-year veteran whose real name is Tony Magliaro. "Only, we've got live athletes to play with. We're true thespians. You go back to the analogy of a play. We write it. We talk it. We do it.

 NWA wrestlers
National Wrestling Alliance wrestlers talk to each other in the middle of matches that are scripted from the beginning to the end.
"That's a thespian."

Several years ago, World Wrestling Federation czar Vince McMahon admitted what has always been obvious to anyone older than seven. Wrestling, he said, was entertainment.

Remember the quaint times when ABC reporter John Stossel and entertainer Andy Kaufman got whacked when they dared to suggest that wrestling might not be real? Well, the F-word (as in, it's fake) doesn't seem to bother those in the business these days. Maybe it's because pro wrestling is enjoying unprecedented success. Perhaps the new freedom to create bigger, better and more fantastic scenarios is the very reason wrestling has surpassed its previous high-water mark in the mid-1980s.

McMahon himself told ESPN recently that wrestling is "definitely not a sport. I think when (fans are) watching a Schwarznegger movie, a Stallone film, I think they know that that actor isn't really dead when they murder him. I mean, hello?"

Eric Bishoff, McMahon's WCW counterpart, also said as much. "There's a group of us that work on storylines and character development, and all of the things that are associated with the television program."

Those two major wrestling outfits, the WWF and WCW, have honed the construction of storylines and character development to an art. There are stables of writers, known as bookers, who produce scripts in the manner of a network sitcom. The Monday night shows are among the most popular in cable programming.

But the beauty of running your own shop, as Rumble does, is that you literally become a figment of your own imagination.

After allowing arch-rival "Trooper Gilmore" to win the NWA-NE belt in a recent television match, Rumble is in the mood for revenge.

"I'm just going to kick his ass as much as possible," he says at the booking meeting in early March.

On March 13, Rumble sees Trooper Gilmore outside the locker room at Southbridge High School. "Me and you in the second match," he says. "I'm just going to beat the ---- out of you."

  There's an ongoing demand by the wrestling fan to make the storylines beyond their imagination all the time.  ”
— Brett Hart
The Trooper sighs. He knows what this means.

Sure enough, before the match is over he takes six (count them, six) folding chairs to the back, courtesy of Rumble's cohorts, "The Brotherhood."

The microphone ESPN's Outside the Lines show placed on Rumble picks up the stage directions he gives to the Trooper throughout the match:

"Take a big clothesline, Buddy!" Rumble says at one point before changing his mind. "Or an elbow, rather! Elbow!"

Trooper dutifully runs into the elbow and drops to the canvas, quivering with pain.

At the end, Rumble grabs the Trooper's boots, leans down and whispers, "Boston Crab. Roll to your left."

The Trooper, breathing hard, says, "OK."

And so the Trooper rolls into the Bad Boy's signature finish and the crowd roars. Rumble leaves the ring triumphant. But behind his snarl he is already thinking about the matches to follow. Are there any adjustments he should make?

The NWA-NE is a relatively small operation; Rumble gets help with storylines from Sheldon Goldberg (the commissioner, who also oversees merchandise sales at shows), Patrick Doyle (the young television producer) and Jeff Katz, a Boston radio personality.

Still, NWA-NE puts matches together essentially the same way its larger WWF and WCW counterparts do -- just on a dramatically smaller scale. As a regional operator, Rumble was willing to let ESPN in on the creative process.

His wrestlers demonstrated how they take phantom punches and boots to the head. Falling properly to avoid injury, they said, isn't as easy as it looks. Try it with your kids in the family room. They explained how two wrestlers fill the middle of a match scripted at the top and bottom with ad-lib choreography.

That didn't mean that all of his wrestlers felt comfortable with the cameras hovering around backstage.

Two in particular, "King Kong Bundy" and "Knuckles Nelson" weren't happy that he was "giving away the business." Their old-school argument is that pro wrestling is like a magic trick; once you understand how the illusion works, it loses its appeal.

Still, many of the major characters for the WWF and WCW discussed the creative process with ESPN. One of them was Dwayne Johnson, who is known to WWF fans as "The Rock." Johnson says his original name was Rocky, and that his handle and his character evolved over time.

"We have writers, and they kind of sit down and they write for the upcoming show, and (plan) within the next month what they'd like to do," Johnson says. "The good thing about it is the writers we do have are really in tune with 'The Rock.' "

Says Brett Hart, "There's an ongoing demand by the wrestling fan to make the storylines beyond their imagination all the time. You know, like, 'Amaze me where it's going next,' and there's a tendency to be able to do that in wrestling. There's a lot of great minds in it.

"We don't get credit for being great actors sometimes. We don't get credit for being great athletes, when, in fact, maybe we're a really good combination of both."

The WCW's Chris Jericho acknowledges that wrestling has entered a new era.

"It's kind of changed now, where two guys in a pair of trunks exchanging holds for 20 minutes isn't going to rivet a viewer's attention," he says. "In 1999, the storylines are the one and only most important thing."

Greg Garber is a columnist with and a reporter with ESPN's Outside the Lines. Reaction to his story can be sent to

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