Nikita Breznikov is that rare fan who fulfilled his dream of "getting into the business." As Nikolai Volkoff’s real life and in-ring manager, he traveled the indie circuit wreaking havoc as an old-school foreign heel heat magnet, as well as on occasion wrestling as Nikolai’s tag partner. In When It Was Real, he goes into great detail about the WWWF of the 1970s. Breznikov enthusiastically breaks down each year’s highlights and top angles while putting us in those seats and seeing it through the eyes of a young fan full of awe and wonder.
"Nikita Breznikov puts the reader in those seats and lets you see it through the eyes of a young fan full of awe and wonder."
I’ve never read a book that explains quite as well that stage where we believed "it was real," but nonetheless had our nagging doubts about what we were witnessing. Nikita mentions "hearing what they were saying" during the bouts from his up-close ringside seat yet shrugging it off. He talks about fans furious when a beloved hero didn’t get the nod and the "suspension of disbelief" once they started to "smarten up." But what is ever so special about the book is the author’s ability to express the sheer love he and so many of us in that pre-Internet era had for pro wrestling:
"We loved wrestling so much…" Breznikov wrote. "We would buy tickets for the next month’s show that very night, with no knowledge whatsoever of what the lineup would be or who would be on the card. Most of us didn’t care who was wrestling. We just wanted to be there because we loved them all."
So simple. So wonderful.
I started watching wrestling in 1972 and attending in 1974, and WWWF was my home territory as well, so I can most certainly relate to this work. While I was based out of NYC, Nikita was a Baltimore native. Although we got many of the same matches and feuds, there were subtle differences. Madison Square Garden usually got the big Bruno / Pedro Morales / Superstar Graham title match first, and then it would make its way around the territory which Nikita chronicles. Yet, in Baltimore, which had a large African American population, they’d get unique matches with Bobo Brazil sometimes on top, i.e., Bobo vs. Superstar.
Meanwhile, our Nassau Coliseum was the "B Circuit" in NYC, and we’d often get different headline matches than MSG. For example, we saw Dusty Rhodes vs. Ivan Koloff, Bruno Sammartino vs. Johnny Valiant, Bruno vs. Jerry Valiant, Bruno & Monsoon vs. The Executioners, Bruno vs. Executioner #1, Bruno vs. Executioner #2, Andre the Giant vs. Superstar Graham, Andre the Giant vs. Butcher Vachon, Bruno vs. Butcher Vachon, Andre and Dino Bravo vs. Superstar and Crazy Luke Graham, and Superstar in one-off title matches vs. Haystack Calhoun, Billy White Wolf, Pat Barrett, and innumerable others.
Nikita puts you in those seats as an awestruck kid watching these super-heroes and villains, and just what it felt like to sit at the foot of such greatness. The book is at its best when it pours its heart out. There’s no snarky commentary ala today’s Internet. No all-knowing insider over-analysis written with great gravitas. No obsessive "Who was the booker in ’72 and let’s pick this angle apart" fifty years later. Instead, it’s a fan’s perspective exuding a sheer love for this unique art form.
I do, however, have some minor qualms about Nikita’s missives. I’m not a massive fan of the move for move/hold for hold school of wrestling journalism, and the umpteenth George "The Animal" Steele vs. Bruno match probably didn’t warrant such here. And Nikita has clear biases that he’s not shy about expressing. All-time greats such as Dusty Rhodes, John Tolos, Larry Hennig, Ray Stevens are dismissed in quickie paragraphs as lesser talents, while a Chief Jay Strongbow could do no wrong and practically walked on water. I couldn’t disagree more with his take on these legends. Tolos, in particular, has a beloved warm spot in my heart, but again, When It Was Real is all about this specific writer/fan pouring his guts out on the page, and I suppose it would be disingenuous for him NOT to state his honest feelings.
The book has a treasure trove of clips from various WWWF venues that bring a flood of memories. And Nikita does on occasion delve into some of the stars’ forays into other territories like Florida and the Maple Leaf Gardens in Canada, which give some variety to the proceedings.
But what I’m mostly left with upon reading his tome is the great love – and innocence – of this long, lost era and how much it meant to him and so many of us. I’m sincerely grateful that Nikita took it upon himself to chronicle this incredible period in wrestling history, and this nearly 300-page labor of love is a treasure for those of us who were there.
Excerpts from When It Was Real by Nikita Breznikov, with Scott Teal
Excerpt from Chapter Two:
"I was working a private party in 1996 at which many of the legends were present, and Lou [Albano] was the master of ceremonies. Lou had a phobia about germs and didn’t like to shake hands. In fact, he carried a handkerchief with him to use as a barrier from direct contact. Nikolai [Volkoff], always the prankster, was ready for him that night. Nikolai put his hand under the kitchen faucet and covered his hand with water. As Lou walked past us, Nikolai sneezed and whipped his hand towards the back of Lou’s neck. Lou was livid! He believed Nikolai had sneezed on him. Fortunately, there were children present, so Lou had to hold his tongue, but he gave Nikolai a look that could have killed. He ran over to the sink, put his entire head under the faucet, and washed off the back of his neck."
Excerpt from Chapter Ten:
"…this was the taping on which George Steele’s green tongue was first emphasized. When he saw Steele’s tongue, Vince was in total disbelief, which may have been a legitimate reaction. I don’t know if Steele came up with the idea on his own and just did it, or if it was Vince’s idea. Either way, Vince did a remarkable job of putting it over. Steele used his foreign object and the ripped turnbuckles to destroy Steve King. King did manage to get in a little offense when he rubbed some of the turnbuckle pad stuffing in Steele’s face, but that was the only thing he did before he fell victim to Steele’s flying hammerlock. Just a bit of trivia … George colored his tongue by eating green Clorets breath mints."
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