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Inside the Lost World of Wrestling Tape-Trading

Did the community die with YouTube? Or were the bonds too strong for the internet to tear them apart?

When I graduated junior high school in 1998, I was very clear to my parents about what I wanted as a gift: a second VCR.

Ever since I started buying bootlegged pro wrestling videotapes a few years earlier, I knew that eventually being able to trade videotapes with like-minded obsessives was something that I wanted to do. It wasn’t necessarily an immediate concern, though, until we finally got our first computer in 1997, at which point I discovered that America Online had a pro wrestling tape-trading forum inside its “Grandstand” sports area. (The Grandstand was something of an AOL anomaly in terms of the intelligence of its discussion.)

Previously, since I didn’t get any wrestling publications with a classifieds section, I wouldn’t have had any options anyway. But with my world opened up further, blank tape prices at an all-time low and postal rates being very forgiving at the time, it was an obvious path for me to go on. Before long, I started dealing with a trader on Long Island who would copy my stuff and then return the originals with new stuff he dubbed for me.

And so, when middle school graduation finally came around, my parents and I went to the TV and VCR repair shop that sold used gear that they refurbished in-house, and I went home with a stereo Quasar for something like $80 or $90.

While pro wrestling had one of the more vibrant tape (and eventually DVD) trading scenes around, it was very, very different from the others that existed online, and prior to that, in the classified pages of zines. Hardcore wrestling fandom was completely driven by it, to the point that, unless you had some good luck, it was basically required to keep up. For good reason, too: When wrestling was regionalized, it was the only way to see a number of different weekly shows, to the point that fans traded audio cassettes of wrestlers’ manic TV interviews before VCRs became commonplace. (In fact, this culture begat Dave Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer Newsletter, the genre’s longest-running legitimate news publication — it celebrated its 35th anniversary this year — as it was a means for Meltzer to streamline his correspondence with other tape traders.)

“Tape trading came from just wanting to see all of this stuff I’d heard about and never had a chance to see; I’d only seen pictures in the magazines,” recalls 6:05 Superpodcast host and Jim Cornette Experience co-host Brian Last, a prolific trader right before the internet boom. “Around the time I started really getting into John Arezzi’s Pro Wrestling Spotlight [radio] show, which also was around the same time I started getting the Observer, you started seeing ‘The Readers’ Pages’ [section]. The next thing you know, this person has Detroit [wrestling], this person has Georgia [wrestling], this person has old Observers. For someone like me, who wanted to see and learn about this stuff, it was so exciting. The only bad part was, at that point, I didn’t have enough to give people to get the good shit that I wanted to see.”

Thankfully for Last and many others, wrestling tape trading was unconstrained by the rules that governed trading for music and especially TV shows, particularly when it came to selling tapes. In other entertainment genres, it was generally difficult to find people willing to sell you things or even trade them for extra blank tape if you didn’t have anything they wanted/needed.

But: “Wrestling tape traders tried to get their hands on everything, even if it was wrestling that they didn’t particularly like, because they knew there was someone they could trade it to, or there would be someone out there to buy it,” Last recalls. “And for a long period of time, the WWF [now WWE] wasn’t going after tape traders. Overall, there was a lot of naïveté to selling tapes early on. Who owns what? What’s public domain? Everyone knew you should stay away from WWF stuff because they would sue you — and most people probably did — but everyone felt [Japanese wrestling] was open season despite the fact that the footage was owned by [major Japanese] television networks.” (Japanese video stores started popping up in numerous cities and illicitly renting All Japan Pro Wrestling’s and New Japan Pro-Wrestling’s weekly TV shows, as well, which was practically an invitation to widely share those programs.)

Longtime trader John McAdam explained on his Stick to Wrestling podcast in June that looking back in time, everyone needs to consider how much less consideration for copyright law there was among the general public. “The world was a much different place when I first started doing this,” McAdam argued. Case in point: There was a weekly flea market where he grew up in North Attleboro, Massachusetts, and “one of the displays was about as wide as a tractor trailer, and these people sold bootleg 8-tracks and cassettes.” They weren’t subtle about it, either: “It said right on the sign: ‘You will get two tapes here for the same price you would get one tape somewhere else. Everyone in North Attleboro knew about this place. It was so flagrant, and that was just the way it was.”

Last, meanwhile, had the luxury of a nearby comic book store, L&S Comix, which carried an array of bootleg wrestling videos, even if the quality was suboptimal. “I bought a tape from them, and I remember the guy saying, ‘This looks great! Wait ’til you see it! Wait ’til you see it!’” It wasn’t, but it was a start, as were camcorder bootlegs of Nassau Coliseum WWF shows that he or friends shot.

In my case, by the time I started trading, I built up enough of a weird mix of footage I taped off TV and stuff I bought from traders and at retail that it was fairly seamless to enter into the fray.

The internet made it easy to find like-minded fans, too, though most of the older guard didn’t migrate over to the new forums. Still, some did — for example, lawyer and longtime fan Bob Barnett, as well as McAdam, who cleverly built a list full of information in each tape description, making you more likely to buy. “One day — I wanna say in 1992, or maybe 1991 — I came up with the idea of ‘What if I were actually to describe what’s going on instead of just having the match[es listed]?’” McAdam said on his podcast. “Here’s what happened, here’s the angle that they presented, maybe throw in a little bit of personal commentary.” After experimenting on it with a single Florida wrestling compilation in his print list, “everyone wanted that tape,” so it became his modus operandi from then on, which carried over to his website in 1995.

Everything, though, started evolving again circa 2003, when set-top DVD recorders and computer DVD burners became more affordable and commonplace. (McAdam sees the rise of Napster as when “the world changed.”) Once they got popular — relatively speaking, as the set-top recorders were never major commercial successes — trading started to become almost an all-or-nothing game. Now that you no longer had to copy anything in real time, and with blank discs soon dropping to about 25 cents apiece, the hobby really did turn into an effort to get everything.

Purchase prices nosedived, as well, and with such massive saturation of available footage, trading slowed because a lot of people had obtained just about everything available.

Now, obviously, in 2018, there’s very little formal trading, with collections shared via YouTube for everyone or privately via cloud drive services. It’s much easier yes, but admittedly, the thrill of the hunt has almost completely faded away.

What that leaves is the relationships, of course, but also the stories — like the guy in Japan who wanted pristine quality boxing recorded off of American TV and bought me a set-top DVD recorder to expedite the process.

At the very least, it allowed me to ask for something else from my parents for high school graduation.