Even though professional wrestling is recognized by most as a scripted event, full of some of the world’s greatest characters and actors, memorabilia from the squared circle seems to make it into sports memorabilia auctions from time to time. In fact, there’s a select batch of collectors who would much rather own a pair of Bruno Sammartino match-worn trunks than a jersey worn by Mickey Mantle.
Arguably the greatest sports star ever, Muhammad Ali, modeled much of his flamboyant pre-bout hype from pro wrestling pioneer Gorgeous George, and Hall of Famers such as Bronko Nagurski actually participated in pro wrestling.
Out of all the different forms of entertainment – sports, movies, etc. – pro wrestling is right up there in stature. It’s a billion-dollar industry, drawing revenue from ticket sales, television broadcasts, branded merchandise and home videos. Pro wrestling was instrumental in making pay-per-view a viable method of content delivery. Annual shows such as WrestleMania are among the highest-selling pay-per-view programming. With all of this popularity, collectors of pro wrestling, at least modern-era pro wrestling, aren’t left out in the cold cost-wise, unlike some who collect memorabilia from the four major sports.
For instance, Greg “The Hammer” Valentine, one of the most popular wrestlers of his time, recently signed autographs at a show for a mere $10 per item. That price is encouraging in a day and age when collectors need to use nearly their entire economic stimulus check to purchase a Derek Jeter autographed baseball.
Bernie Gernay, agent of pro wrestler the Ultimate Warrior, thinks that many former wrestlers are selling themselves short when it comes to cashing in on their star power.
“I think the reason Warrior stuff has a great value to it is that he’s not all over the place,” said Gernay, who charges $55 for a signature of the Warrior at a public signing. “A lot of former talent will come and do a signing for a hot dog and a beer. The Warrior hasn’t sold himself out throughout the years. Most of these other guys didn’t know how to market themselves when they were out of wrestling.
“Ultimate Warrior owns his name, logos, persona and everything. He legally owns the trademarks and everything associated with Ultimate Warrior,” Gernay said. “There’s value to that. Most of these guys don’t.”
Wrestling collector Bob Bryla agreed with Gernay.
“Not only didn’t some of these guys look at life after wrestling, most don’t look at life during wrestling,” said Bryla. “Most of them don’t plan ahead in terms of finances and things. They don’t realize, they could be making $10,000 a week, but they could have one injury and they’re done. Some of these guys you can get to sign autographs for $500 a day, guys who were huge stars. Wrestling is a lot different than other major sports.”
About 10 years ago, Lelands.com President Mike Heffner said he saw potential with wrestling memorabilia, such as match-worn costumes and vintage autographs, and he thought it would start taking on popularity similar to boxing. Alas, that never really happened.
“Josh (Evans) and I used to joke about it,” said Heffner. “We used to say that wrestling stuff was going to be the next big thing, but it never really amounted to much. It’s sort of like NASCAR. I don’t mean to insult anyone, but I think the collector base is on a different socioeconomic scale. I think although there are a lot of high-powered doctors and attorneys that get a kick out of professional wrestling, I don’t think too many of them take it seriously. It shouldn’t be, it’s for entertainment. You have people that take boxing, hockey and baseball really seriously, and that’s why there’s a lot of money spent on it.
“It’s not tremendously valuable,” he added of wrestling memorabilia. “Like a pair of Bruno Sammartino’s trunks might bring a couple thousand bucks. Compared to Muhammad Ali’s fight-worn trunks, which sell for like $20,000, it’s just a drop in the bucket.”
Maybe wrestling collectibles just haven’t reached their peak yet. Gernay claimed the popularity exists, and is right up there with the major sports.
“Warrior sells more consistently than any of the current stars that we represent in football,” said Gernay, who owns Pro Sports Investments Marketing Group. “Most people wouldn’t realize that. We were surprised. When we first worked for him, he forwarded me about 25 e-mails that he got for appearance requests. I don’t think there’s any player in the National Football League that gets that many requests.”
“Irish” Johnny Griffin, a lifetime collector of wrestling memorabilia, said he used to mainly focus on boxing memorabilia, but when he saw prices go up and up, he switched his main focus to wrestling memorabilia.
“If you look at where wrestling was, it was much more above any of the team sports,” said Griffin. “Boxing, wrestling and horse racing in this country were the top sports back in the 1920s. It’s like anything else. Years ago, all the collectors knew each other and you would pretty much trade with people. You would go to flea markets, but there was very little value. But over the years, the stuff has grown up where the popularity of the real old stuff has started to appreciate, like boxing. Boxing has gotten out of reach for most people. That’s one thing that’s turned me against collecting boxing memorabilia. A lot of the young kids today can’t afford to put their hands on the material because people are out there buying it and driving the prices up the wall.”
Griffin’s collection goes all the way back to pro wrestling’s infancy, dating as far back as the late 1800s. He fell in love with wrestling in the 1960s when he used to watch the East Coast’s Capitol Wrestling Corp. (which later became the World Wrestling Federation).
“My father took me to my first match in Madison Square Garden when I was 10 back in 1965,” said Griffin, who displays his collection on his website, ringmemorabilia.com. “You couldn’t get in there until you were 13 or 15, but I was kind of tall so they didn’t bother me. Bruno Sammartino and Bill Watts was the main go that night.
“I got into the history of it. More and more, I started reading about the old guys from the early 1900s. The likes of Frank Gotch, Tom Jenkins, Evan the original “Strangler” Lewis, Joe “Toots” Mondt – those types of guys who really developed the whole thing going forward.”
Griffin’s favorite pieces to collect are match-worn items, vintage cabinet photos, programs, autographs and on-site posters.
“On-site posters are extremely rare because nobody kept them,” said Griffin. “People used to pull that stuff out of their basements and throw it out for the paper drives during the war. Two of the Holy Grail pieces in the wrestling memorabilia hobby are Gotch vs. Georg Hackenschmidt, the poster and the program. I saw the program go on eBay for something like $3,500. The poster would go for a heck of a lot more, something like $7,500-$10,000. That match took place at Comiskey Park. Hackenschmidt was the champion of Europe, and Gotch was the champ of the U.S. Both matches Gotch won. Close to 50,000 fans turned out for it.”
According to Heffner, Lelands.com rarely comes across high-end wrestling lots such as the Gotch vs. Hackenschmidt poster.
“I really like the stuff,” said Heffner. “We’ve had some posters and things. You would think there would be more stuff out there, but you just don’t find it. I think a lot of it was thrown away, and a lot of wrestlers might still have it.”
One of the wrestlers who kept nearly all of his match-worn items was the Ultimate Warrior. Gernay said he sold a pair of his ring-worn trunks for $2,000, his ring-worn duster for $20,000 and ring-worn boots for $4,000-$5,000.
Griffin said the best match-worn item that he owns is a pair of Johnny Valentine trunks. He also has the Iron Sheik’s trunks and Ox Baker’s animal skin robes, which are also some of the highlights of his collection.
Similar items can be viewed at the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum (www.pwhf.org) in Amsterdam, N.Y. In addition to the exhibits at the PWHF, every year, fans and collectors are offered a chance to mingle with their heroes at its annual induction festivities.
“Usually, we’ll hook up with a local organization on the Friday night, and there will be a regular wrestling show where they’ll have local guys wresting and a couple of big stars,” said PWHF official, John Pantozzi. “The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame Induction is on a Saturday. We’ll have a collector convention in the morning, with all kinds of people selling wrestling memorabilia. Later in the afternoon, there’s a meet-and-greet. Whatever wrestlers come in, we’ll charge people $5 or $10, and people can get as many autographs as they want.”
Also falling into the topic of wrestling autographs, some of the most collectible pieces of pro wrestling memorabilia are signed items, such as photos and programs. According to Griffin, even the vintage signed programs are fairly easy to obtain.
“Wrestlers have always been very accessible,” said Griffin. “People would go around the ring and have them sign their programs. That’s why if you look for programs at flea markets, a lot of them are signed.”
Heffner said one of the most popular modern wrestling autographs is Andre the Giant because of his great fan appeal and the fact that he died at a young age. Other wrestlers who died young, such as Chris Benoit and Owen Hart, have some desirability among collectors, but Griffin said after a big burst on eBay, that hype has now died down.
“Probably one of the toughest wrestling autographs is Frank Gotch,” added Griffin. “He died of uremic poisoning at a young age. Postcards go for about $1,500, and photos might sell for as much as $3,000-$4,000. There’s very little out there on him. His autograph is extremely rare. If you find a Frank Gotch autograph, you’ve really got something.”
Probably not a high-dollar autograph, but according to Bryla, one of the professional wrestling signatures that’s definitely hard to obtain is Karl Von Hess.
“He actually played a Nazi character,” said Bryla. “He never signed an autograph his entire career and spoke only German in public. Once he was knifed, and when they brought the guy to court, he said he wanted an interpreter because he didn’t want the public to see that he spoke English. That’s how much he was into his character.”
Bryla said even when fans would come up to Von Hess for a signature, he would take the paper or photo and rip it up and throw it in their face.
“As far as I know, I’m the only one in the world who has his autograph,” he added. “In 1991, there was a wrestling convention, and Von Hess attended. It was in a real nice hotel and when we were checking out, I noticed that you had to sign the bill. So I asked the hotel clerk if I could see Von Hess’ bill. Sure enough, there was his signature. The kid saw how excited I was after I saw it, and he asked if I wanted it. That was one of my greatest collecting moves ever.”
There’s no question pro wrestling collecting is in a world of its own. The brilliant pieces, the circus-like events and the larger-than-life personas help make it one of the most interesting niches in the hobby.
Whether you’re buying wrestling memorabilia for the love of the characters or the possible investment potential, one thing is for sure – these pieces make for great conversation pieces for life. The sport has as rich of a history as nearly any form of entertainment in the world, and definitely one of the most obscure. But that’s what makes it fun.
Check out Chris Nerat’s blog, Gavel Chat at: gavelchat.sportscollectorsdigest.com. Readers may reach him at Chris.Nerat@fwpubs.com or call him at (800) 726-9966, ext. 13452.