Article Thumbnail

Dave Meltzer Pulls His Punches for No One

Whether it’s the five-star match reviews that fans endless debate or holding promoters accountable for the sins of the industry, for 40 years now, the famed wrestling journalist has called it exactly as he’s seen it

To say that Dave Meltzer is the most important journalist in professional wrestling history would sound like puffery if you weren’t privy to the facts of the matter. In the 40 years since he founded The Wrestling Observer, Meltzer has arguably exerted more influence over the manner in which pro wrestling is both presented and consumed than any other industry outsider, with his view of a match being characterized for decades as being the opinion that matters most. (He is, in many ways, the Roger Ebert of wrestling, with his coveted five-star designation the equivalent to Ebert’s iconic thumbs up.)

To pro wrestlers and promoters, Meltzer is often credited — or blamed, depending upon who is doing the talking — for clearing away the smoke to help clarify pro wrestling’s status as a performance art rather than a legitimate sport. Moreover, his open reporting of match results, television ratings and attendance figures raised wrestling promoters to a higher standard of accountability, thereby reducing the extent to which they could manipulate their employees through the spread of misinformation. He’s also had no problem calling out the ills of the industry, particularly the rampant steroid use of the 1980s.

As the Wrestling Observer embarks upon its 40th year of existence, I recently spoke to Meltzer about how changing social tides have altered the infamous boys-will-be-boys ethos of wrestling, the responsibility that comes with having such a powerful opinion and the interesting dichotomy of a highly testosterone-fueled industry being so obsessed with (and built upon) gossip — not to mention, the male physical form. 

When you think about The Observer’s accomplishments, what are you proudest of?

I’m just proud of the fact that I was always honest with the readers. That was always the goal. I was also happy that I had the ability to break stories in detail and be ahead of the curve. The other thing I’m the proudest of is the extent to which I might have had an influence on the culture of the wrestlers, because of all the obituaries I wrote and all of the talk about the steroids and the pain pills in that generation. I hammered the major wrestling companies about those deaths, and we don’t have those deaths of active wrestlers anymore — at least not to the same degree. It was much worse. 

I was adamant about WCW and WWF testing guys for steroids, which a lot of wrestlers who used steroids didn’t like, but I do think it created an environment for a much healthier generation of wrestlers. Not that steroids are gone, but it created a situation where we have much lighter guys, which has also helped with match quality. 

Speaking of physiques, that’s something fans have always obsessed over — basically, what a guy looks like with his shirt off and in his wrestling trunks. How has that physical ideal evolved in the time you’ve been covering pro wrestling?

When I first started watching wrestling in the 1970s, the wrestlers were mostly thick, burly guys with big stomachs. Most of them were between 5-foot-11 and 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds and up. You had some giants and some steroid guys around for sure, but there wasn’t an emphasis on being cut, even for the guys who trained with weights; they still drank a lot of beer.

With the 1980s, you had Hulk Hogan coming to prominence, and that’s when a lot of the other wrestlers followed suit. Vince McMahon was obviously a proponent of that look since he was a bodybuilder himself. Steroid guys were dominating, and a lot of the old wrestlers’ bodies fell by the wayside. The fan base of that time was conditioned through Vince’s booking to believe the guys with bigger muscles were tougher, so the guys who were naturally more athletic also fell by the wayside as far as fan acceptance was concerned.

When people’s mentalities started to shift, and they began to think of pro wrestling as an art form instead of simply fake fighting, then it became more about who could wrestle at a certain level rather than their appearance. When that happened, your size as a wrestler might have been beneficial, but in a presentation that was more about movement, athletic ability and artistry, your size mattered far less than it used to. 

Is it even possible to pinpoint what the ideal male body type is in the wrestling industry nowadays?

I’d say the ideal body type would probably belong to guys like Bobby Roode and Dolph Ziggler — guys who are clearly athletic and have great bodies, yet neither of them are big stars. Guys like Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushi have a perfect blend between great physiques and incredible athletic ability and charisma. Functionally, their bodies are incredible, and they can do everything in the ring that you’d want a wrestler to be able to do.

Roman Reigns is the WWE’s ideal type for sure, or Brock Lesnar. But Brock is also a freak athlete. The few people in the world you could find who look like Brock, almost none of them would also be great athletes. Also, Roman definitely has a great physique, but he isn’t as big as Hogan, either.

In terms of drugs other than steroids, the boys-will-be-boys nature of wrestling is typified in stories where wrestlers played salacious or otherwise dangerous ribs on one another, often roofie-ing each other — or in some cases, slipping things to female fans — and frequently engaging in behavior that would be impossible to explain away in almost any other circumstance. Has that mentality changed, too?

The culture has definitely changed, but I’d say that most of the change has happened over the last 10 years. Wrestling used to be a non-stop party behind the scenes — and it still is to a degree — but it doesn’t have the atmosphere that it used to have even well into the 2000s. Now you have far less drug use, and you have far more students of wrestling. Video-game guys didn’t exist in the bygone era because video games didn’t exist in that era. After the shows, you went to the room with whatever women you met. It’s nothing like it was in the territories where guys worked in the same cities every week and had 10 regular women available to sleep with them in each of those cities. 

You were also always supposed to protect “the boys” back then. I don’t want to say the wrestler’s name, but there was a story that he had exposed himself to someone when he was in WCW. Everybody on the roster had an alibi for him because the attitude was that it was a fraternity, and you were supposed to protect the members of the fraternity — no matter what. Nowadays guys still want to protect their friends, but even that can be dangerous. If you think about Tommy Dreamer and the way he came across in the Dark Side of the Ring episode about the Plane Ride from Hell where he defended Flair [for exposing himself to the flight crew], he almost wound up getting more excoriated than Flair for trying to defend Ric’s behavior. 

That’s so interesting to me, because Dreamer did what every wrestler of his generation would have done — defend your guys regardless of the situation. Now, if someone is on the blacklist because a woman says that he did something inappropriate to her, and you try to defend him, you can get the brunt of the backlash. 

So that obviously has changed what it means to be “one of the boys.”

Every aspect of it has changed, and for the most part, it’s changed for the better. There are people who are nostalgic for that period who think this era is terrible. The guys that are wrestling now are far less likely to go out drinking until 4 a.m., and they don’t get into street fights. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but that’s not the world that some of these older guys grew up in, and some of them are disappointed by it. 

Another thing to consider is that a lot of the guys who are wrestling now grew up as fans and lived through the deaths of their heroes, many of whom died in their 40s. If you’re a 30-year-old wrestler now, you were about 15 when Chris Benoit died and 13 when Eddie Guerrero died. So while the wrestlers now want to emulate the magic those guys had in the ring, they don’t want to emulate that lifestyle because they know what the end result might be. If you were a teenager and your hero is found dead in a hotel room, that’s definitely going to have an influence on you. 

Inside the ring, what are the biggest differences you’ve noticed since you started covering the sport?

The quality of the shows and the quality of the matches are so much more important than they used to be in the 1980s. Back then, the mentality of the wrestlers was often, “We’ve got your money already, so now let’s do as little as possible.” Again, it’s also that a lot of people involved in wrestling right now grew up as fans, and they want to give today’s wrestling fans the type of shows they would have enjoyed watching when they were fans. Older wrestlers thought they were getting free money to pretend to fight. Today’s wrestlers see it as an art form, and they’re going to work really hard when they get in the ring, because their childhood dream was just to be able to get in there. 

The wrestling style in the ring is so different now. It’s harder, and there are points when I see that it’s more dangerous. But it’s also a more entertaining spectacle in so many ways. Also, no one is promoting fake fights anymore and pretending that they’re real; everyone is promoting entertainment. Wrestling is now honest with what it is for the most part, and it’s made for a better profession. Obviously, wrestling is totally different, but it was going to be totally different no matter what, because society is completely different from the way it was 40 years ago. 

Is it that the style and pace of the older matches are simply not as good as those of modern matches?

When I rewatch old matches, they’re never as good as I remember them being, and it’s not because they weren’t good. I used to say to Terry Funk in the late 1980s, “God, I watch these 1970s matches and they’re so slow.” And Terry would say, “Well, those guys in the 1970s are working for 1970s wrestling fans. They’re not working for you. They had no idea what wrestling was going to be 20 years later.” If you, in 2022, look back on a match from 1986 — good, bad or indifferent — just remember that they’re not working for you. They’re working for people with a very different taste in wrestling. 

If you’re great in your era, then you’re a great wrestler, period. But as far as being the greatest of all-time goes, how do you fairly compare Pat Patterson or Ric Flair with a guy today? The entire goal of what they’re trying to accomplish is completely different.

Your opinion on matches, angles and other aspects of wrestling is perceived to be more meaningful than the opinions of others. Why do you think that is?

Wade Keller and The Pro Wrestling Torch were around in the same time period. Sometimes our opinions were similar, but often they weren’t. I remember when I’d get The Torch. Nine out of 10 times, Wade and I were on the same page with match ratings, but sometimes we disagreed, which is probably the way it should be. There have always been others around who did ratings, and other writers who had voices, like Jon Gallagher from The Wrestling Forum. It wasn’t always just Dave. Perhaps I had more people quote me, but it was never a situation where there was only just one person.

Also, when it comes to matches, the most important opinion comes from The Observer’s awards at the end of the year, and that’s hundreds of people giving their opinions. There are years where I disagreed vehemently with who won Match of the Year because of the easier access people had to some of the U.S. stuff. However, the award is a much better reflection than my opinion of what a hardcore-ish wrestling audience thought of the matches when they initially happened. It’s more important to look at what hundreds of people thought, and for that, you can look at the top-five finishers for Match of the Year dating back to any year. That’s a better consensus view than my individual star ratings as to what wrestling fans liked at the time.

Do you ever get sick of watching wrestling after all this time?

I don’t necessarily get sick of watching wrestling, but sometimes I don’t want to watch as much wrestling as I do. There’s always some good wrestling available to watch. If wrestling was all average and I was thinking, “I’ve already seen all this,” I could probably live without it. Most of my contemporaries are still fans, but for a lot of them, it’s just not their cup of tea anymore. It’s not intended to be, though. One of the things that I think is really important if you’re going to be a long-term fan is the understanding that the wrestling style you’re watching now isn’t going to be what you’re going to be watching in 10 years, and if you expect it to always stay the same, you’re going to be disappointed, because it can’t stay the same. That would mean that an art had stagnated.

You’re well-known for the fact that you weight train religiously. What are you doing to train these days now that you’re in your mid-60s? 

When you’re older, it’s all about avoiding injuries, and I’m really not good at that. I try to delve into what Bruno Sammartino once told me: “When you’re older, you have to leave your ego at the door.” And I asked him, “At what age does that happen, Bruno?” and he said, “58.” When I was 35 and he was telling me this, I thought it was really funny, but then I was still trying to lift heavy, and I was getting hurt all the time by doing stupid things. I’m trying to be a lot smarter, but it’s hard because you don’t get the results you used to get. 

And from the standpoint of getting older, unless you’re taking all kinds of drugs, you’re not going to physically be what you were before, and you just have to accept it. I don’t know anyone who can still do the heavy leg stuff at my age because of your hips and your knees. I had to give that up. To me, bike riding is the most fun thing because I can bike ride all day and I feel good. Sure, I get sore, but I don’t have any joint issues from that.

So my main thing now is just bike riding so that I feel good. I used to lift weights during RAW just to get me through the three-hour show. Now I just do cardio during the commercials. It’s three hours of your life, and you can’t just sit there and do nothing during a three-hour show. It takes forever.

With wrestling being such a macho industry, does it strike you as ironic that what has fueled the “dirt sheet” publications — like The Observer was once considered — has been primarily gossip, which is generally thought of as a feminine trait?

Wrestling was like that long before there were any newsletters. Pro wrestling was incredibly gossip-driven in the 1970s due to a lack of real news coverage. It was a total mind-games business because there was no system of checks and balances, and promoters could do or say anything they wanted. 

I was always overrun with calls full of gossip and information from day one, and I wasn’t always sure what to believe. Anyone who is a reporter needs to figure out if the information they’re receiving truly adds up. Everyone talks to you with their own agenda, which is why it’s best to talk to as many people as possible to see who has the most credibility. Wrestlers wouldn’t necessarily try to weaponize me or weaponize The Observer through bad information, but they’d often try to get me to see their viewpoint, or to get me to interpret things that were happening in the wrestling industry the way they wanted me to. The problem with them trying to give me incorrect information is that I’d find out if it was bad information very quickly. Very little of it would ever find its way into an issue of The Observer anyway, because I always tried to have several sources before I went to print, and the false information would have contradicted everything else I’d been hearing. 

As a strategy, lying to me was a bad idea, because then I’d never rely on that person as a credible source again. There are people I talk to who I’d swear by, and other people for whom I know I need 10 confirmations from other sources before I would dare to believe what they’re telling me.