70 years ago tonight, November 11, 1947: The greatest wrestler of all time, Gorgeous George, has his first nationally televised match. It would completely revolutionize American culture. In the 1940s, professional wrestling wasn’t much different than amateur wrestling. Two clean-cut men would come to the ring in wrestling gear, exchanging holds and pins until reaching a pre-determined conclusion. The conflict and appeal was mostly based on hometown ties and ethnic identities. Then along came a new invention, television. Networks needed programming, and wrestling was cheap to produce and air. Wagner knew it could completely change everything. He saw what others didn’t – that televised wrestling would open the sport to an exponentially larger audience who didn’t care about armbars and hammerlocks. They wanted a visual spectacle. And George delivered. In post-World War II, clean-cut, macho-man America he dyed his hair platinum blonde, set it in curls with golden pins. “Gorgeous George” came to ring in a pink chiffon robe, strutting along to “Pomp and Circumstance” and tossing flowers and hair pins into the crowd. He even refused to set foot inside until his personal valet had sprayed the ring with Chanel No. 10 (“Why be half-safe?”). America was shocked by the flowery, trash-talking, visual assault. And they couldn’t get enough, rushing to stores to buy the new invention so they could see “The Human Orchid” for themselves.
“The Sensation of the Nation” quickly made professional wrestling television’s most popular attraction, solidifying the medium as America’s favorite form of entertainment. And it wasn’t limited to wrestling. A young Cassius Clay, realizing he could be more than just a boxer, sought out George for advice. “Keep on bragging, keep on sassing and always be outrageous” molded the Muhammad Ali we know today. Everyone from James Brown to Bob Dylan to Liberace credit George for inspiring their personas. And it all started on a canvas mat 70 years ago tonight.