The Wrestling Merchandise and Memories Interview
Originally published August 24, 2017
"We stood up to WWE when they bullied us, or they said 'No, you guys can’t cover wrestling any more' – all kinds of stuff like that."
SLAM! Wrestling is, in many ways, the Rolling Stone of professional wrestling journalism. The site has been around in various forms since 1997, a time where online wrestling coverage was in its infancy as the Monday Night Wars heated up. It’s still going strong today - breaking news in an extremely professional manner and covering off everything that is important in the world of wrestling. One may be hard pressed to list how many websites (wrestling or otherwise) have even been around twenty years, so you know that the Canadian-domiciled SLAM! Wrestling is something of an anomaly.
At the helm of SLAM! Wrestling all these years has been Greg Oliver, a journalist who has seen practically everything in this industry, covering wrestling with the flair and credibility of a seasoned beat reporter (he’s also written a series of well-reviewed books on wrestling and hockey; see our recent review on Shocking Stories from the Squared Circle as an example). In conjunction with SLAM! Wrestling’s 20th anniversary, we spoke with Greg about his experiences in shaping one of wrestling’s most influential and prestigious websites.
Canadian Bulldog: Can we start with how SLAM! Wrestling got started and your involvement in it?
Greg Oliver: The long and the short of starting SLAM! Wrestling, I guess, happened because I did a newsletter as a kid – the Canadian Wrestling Report. So I’d done that; I knew my wrestling; I was involved with it; and then I moved to The Toronto Sun. I was a day one guy with the CANOE website when it wasn’t even named that -- we didn’t know what it was going to be; we didn’t know anything about it. We weren’t even really web guys.
But that happened to coincide with one of the booms in pro wrestling. With Nitro just starting, WWE was on an upswing in the mid-90s; you had guys like The Rock starting out…. that helped grow the business. The Sun saw value in wrestling. Up until that point, the largest-selling Toronto Sun newspaper ever was the Monday after WrestleMania VI. So we knew that, and there had always been a wrestling column in The Sun – Glenn Cole did one in Toronto; Tim Baines did one named Mr. X in Ottawa; The Calgary Sun ran Bret Hart’s column. So we had all this content already, something to the start with.
That’s really the genesis of how SLAM! Wrestling started. We were setting up a hockey site, we had a rodeo site…. all of these things were beginning in the business, and we weren’t sure where we were going with it. It just grew from there.
CB: Looking back at 1997, I seem to recall there were a lot of “newz” sites around but not as many outlets for actual wrestling news, beyond a handful of them here and there. What made you go in that direction to report on wrestling as in a business-like professional manner?
GO: I’m not sure there was much real decision behind it. We were always journalists first; journalists that covered wrestling. That shook a few feathers, because it wasn’t what (wrestling companies) were used to. There were guys at The Sun who might write puff stories a little bit – they weren’t ridiculously-laughable Pro Wrestling Illustrated stories, but they were not hard-hitting stories - whenever these guys came to town.
We tried to get behind these guys a little bit and really understand who they were. Whether it was Ron Simmons coming through the office for an interview… in the early days, we had The Quebecers come through, we had Sunny come through; Mad Dog Vachon, trying to teach him what the web actually was. These are all amazing memories, and these are just people who came through the office.
The (web) traffic proved to be there right from the very beginning, which was the key. In the latest Sports Illustrated, there’s almost a mea culpa talking about wrestling. It’s like, now we started covering it on our website and it’s become a good place. Well, gee, we knew that twenty years ago!
CB: You’ve been at the helm of this site for a long time now. For the outsider looking in, how would you say SLAM! Wrestling broke new ground in terms of covering wrestling?
GO: One of the interesting things we did was marry up photography with the stories. We’ve done photo galleries and things like that because we had access to professional photos. The Sun may have sent somebody to The Canadian Tire Centre (in Ottawa) to shoot pictures, so we had access to great pictures, and could put those photos into the story.
Even now, tons of the old SLAM! pictures still get passed around, even if they are watermarked. The greatest example is The Rock Tweeting out a picture of him with a fanny pack – that was a SUNShine Boy picture. That’s gone viral in so many ways, and that’s an old Sun picture right off SLAM! Wrestling.
We did a lot of journalism, for sure, and we got more confident. We stood up to WWE when they bullied us, or they said “No, you guys can’t cover wrestling any more” – all kinds of stuff like that. (WWE was) trying to figure out their own footprint on the web. It’s hard to believe now, but the web was new; nobody really knew what it was going to be, and that is was going to change the world like it did. I’m not sure WWE anticipated that, and I’m not sure we anticipated it.
CB: Do you think it was an advantage or disadvantage having SLAM! Wrestling based in Canada to cover this industry?
GO: I think the biggest advantage we have is the legitimacy of a real newspaper. We had legitimate high-up power and we could say “Well, we represent the largest newspaper chain in Canada.” So that was a huge feather in our cap, whether we were Canadian or not.
The reverse of it is, WWE as an entity based in the United States gives so little thought to other countries that they basically never worried about (Canada). It’s like, “Oh, they’re in Canada. It’s not a big deal. Whatever they do doesn’t really matter.”
A great example they did is on (Canadian sports talk show) Off The Record. The Undertaker was on there, speaking out of character, in an interview. That didn’t happen anywhere in the U.S…. I think he may have done interview in a Dallas newspaper, like his home town, but other than that, he’s basically been in character his entire career or done no interviews. So it’s really rare, and I think it’s generally it’s not necessarily because they look down on Canada, but they looked at it as a little brother.
CB: It’s very interesting to me that both SLAM! Wrestling and Live Audio Wrestling are 20 this year. I don’t know if that necessarily says anything about Canada or just really about putting out a good product and sticking to your guns?
GO: It’s funny looking back at that because Jeff Marek, who was one of the guys who started Live Audio Wrestling, was a pal of mine. There were a couple of times we just sat down and exchanged phone numbers from our wrestling phone books to help each other. Those early days of Live Audio Wrestling with (Chris) Tidwell and Donnie Abreu… they were only a couple of blocks down the street from where we were at Canoe. So, there was a lot of synergy between the two. Donnie wrote a column for us for a while, too.
That has gone away I guess, to a degree – not that we’re not friends – the businesses just grew a lot. They grew in confidence, we grew in confidence, so maybe it didn’t need that hand-holding that went on in the beginning.
CB: Any cool stories over the years of wrestlers either thanking you or threatening you over something that was written?
GO: There were regular phone calls from (former WWF Canada President) Carl DeMarco. He was bombastic and loud and only thought his way was the right way. When we once posted a code to get (WWF house show) tickets ahead of time that they’d announced in the arena… you’d think we’d killed the Pope. DeMarco’s on the phone yelling and screaming. Of course, these days, people Tweet that out almost immediately.
The biggest one that comes to mind is when (former WWF enhancement talent) Johnny K-9 died. I wrote a story about Johnny – whom I’d interviewed and had known since I was a teenager – I did all my due diligence and all the research and basically listed all his criminal stuff as well as all of his wrestling stuff. He was upset, said “Greg, why did you have to have all that stuff in there?” – this was in the dressing room an ICW show. He’s yelling and really upset and K-9 was a scary guy when he got mad. But there was King Kong Bundy right there behind me… and K-9 kind of backed down a little bit. He wasn’t going to get into it in front of everyone. I’m not sure he would have done anything – like I said, I’d known him for a long time – but what I remember saying is “John, is any of it wrong? Because if it is, I can correct it. But as far as I know, everything in there is true.” And really, that’s all you can arm yourself with as a journalist, is the truth.
It’s a credit to you you’ve developed such a massive network of sources. You seem to know everyone from different corners of the world. Back when I was a reporter, I’d have PR people assisting me, which is obviously a lot easier than developing networks in the wrestling industry.
GO: Like any beat, you develop your contacts, the people you call and that kind of thing. That’s what any journalist does. So when this wrestling thing came about, I had a small network of people I already knew (through my newsletter). Those people proved to be a foot in the door to help. Certainly WWE Canada existing, just in general, was a huge boon to help us get contacts in interviews and things like that, so the PR people that worked in that office and dealt with Carl DeMarco deserve a lot of kudos.
In fact, in a couple of cases after the people who did the PR for WWE left because they couldn’t deal with him, I would take them out for lunch, just to say “Thank you.” I’m not sure how often that happens, but I just knew how rough that was for whomever it was doing it.
And then contacts just build up. So you show up at things – you go to the Cauliflower Alley Club reunion, you show up at the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame – you gain their trust and their respect. When the Tragos/Thesz Hall of Fame in Waterloo are doing their plaques… they send me the actual notes that are going on the plaque for me to double check that it’s right. That’s just an example where you become ingrained in this industry through time and respect.
CB: There are so many cool “only on SLAM” stories that have happened over the years, things like the story that Corporal Kirchner was alive, after WWE had pronounced him dead, or the life and times of Barry O. What would you point to as some of your favorites?
GO: Certainly the Corporal Kirchner one is hilarious, because WWE is the one who posted it on their website and then they never retracted it. They just took the story and then it disappeared. To me, that’s ridiculous in so many ways. But that was great because, I found his mom, I didn’t find him first. She eventually got me in touch with Mike (Kirchner) and over the years, that helped Mike get a couple of books at wrestling shows!
There are experiences, like… (SLAM! writer) Jason Clevett going to the bedside in the hospital days before Killer Kowalski died, because I knew Killer, I knew his wife – I arranged it. What an amazing moment for Jason. He got to talk to this legend just a short time before he died.
Even the way we think outside the box. So John Cena’s in Calgary at a World of Wheels convention, and Jason Clevett asks him about Samoa Joe and they trained together at UPW in California. All of a sudden, Cena’s not being asked the same old questions any more. They light up, they talk to you about different things. It’s a different relationship.
There are just so many stories, like sitting down with guys like The Christy Brothers whose uncles were famous wrestlers – sitting down with them in a diner in California. I got the call from Butcher Vachon when Mad Dog died. I’ve been very fortunate, not going to deny that by any means, but there’s always your next story, and who knows where that’s going to come from.
CB: One of the most fascinating things to me, which you mentioned earlier, was WWE’s media ban and I remember vividly you guys reporting on it at the time. It almost reminds me Trump’s media policies, in a way. What was living through that like?
GO: It was tough. We had to sort of keep our head up and not really get too down about it all, because we knew they had to come around. That was the confidence level. If you were just some rinky-dink little site, that’s not going to happen.
So we just kept positive about it all. We obviously had consulted with whatever people at The Sun that could help us, whether it was the lawyer or whomever it was; occasionally they’d give us a little bit of advice. The late, great Coach Glenn Cole, he heard from us countless times and he sort of just shrugged it off because he’d covered hockey and got in trouble with the Montreal Canadiens or whatever it was over the years… just because you write something bad, they get mad at you for a little bit, but they always come around. Eventually, they did.
When we went to the AstroDome for WrestleMania, (WWE’s PR team) didn’t bother to turn on the phones in the press box for us to file stories. WWE didn’t think like media cared (about filing stories from WrestleMania); it was just so bizarre. The Pond in Anaheim for WrestleMania 2000… they hadn’t bothered to pay for phone lines. So I put my story on a floppy disk, we went to the office of somebody who worked at the Pond, who had to turn on their computer, we had to put the floppy disk in and send it to the Sun newspapers. That’s how much it’s progressed to this point – the press boxes are packed, the international media is treated like gold…. all of these things over the years that I had a small part in making happen, and certainly SLAM! Wrestling did, too.
CB: You’ve written a lot of obituaries and when it comes to having so many friends in this industry, is that tough to cover, because you’re not covering it as a beat reporter may?
GO: These guys were our heroes growing up; we watched them a ton, they came into our lives and they entertained us…. And I got a chance to hang out with them and I got to meet them. So there are tears when a guy like Willie The Wolfman Farkus died. He was one of the sweetest guys ever. And then in that same weekend, Bob Leonard from Stampede died. I was crushed; he’d been such a supporter of us over the years and such a good friend. What a terrible weekend.
And yet you’re able to be professional sometimes; step back and say “Okay, I’ve got to write this obit.” I loved Rowdy Roddy Piper, but we had our ups and downs, to the point he wrote online “Don’t go down a dark alley near me” or something like that! So, it was definitely threatening. When he died, I wrote a column about all those experiences, and in the end we spiked it. It just wasn’t right to run. So I do consult others for editorial decisions and again, that’s part of being a good journalist.
CB: So now I’ve got to ask – what did Piper take exception with?
GO: He came in and did an interview with us, and he did a chat with us the next day. He had been talking about running for Prime Minister, and of course in Canada you don’t run for Prime Minister, you’re part of a party that is leading to run the government. Piper kept going on, like it was an American system, so I was sort of calling him on that. And at some point, he talked about being World Junior Heavyweight Champion and I said that doesn’t count on our list of World Champions. I think that really offended him.
Anyways, he got offended from that and it spiraled from there. It was really bizarre. But then I asked his kids about it, and they said he often went on rants like that. And later on… Piper was there when Bret Hart went off on me. He was in the room, he was being honored that same year. So you just had that awkwardness – what are you going to say?
The business is hard. Writing about people is hard.
CB: We’ve covered a lot of ground. Is there anything that we didn’t go over that people should know about SLAM! Wrestling over the past 20 years?
GO: I should mention the photographers a little bit more. Photography’s a big part of the site and we’ve been very fortunate to cultivate our own group of photographers. They get access to events that maybe they wouldn’t get otherwise and in exchange, we get a gallery. But you don’t know where that’s going to pay off down the road. If someone needs a high-resolution photo of Chris Benoit, we’ve got photos of when he was in Toronto for SummerSlam and hanging out with (former Ontario Premier Dalton) McGuinty, handing him the championship belt. So all of a sudden, those photos have a lot of value.
CB: Do you still enjoy doing this?
GO: I enjoy working with people who write, so I enjoy being an editor; I enjoy being an assignment editor. I enjoy when people get the chance to interview their heroes, or people they looked up to, or they get fascinating experiences. Whether it’s Kari Williams who got to interview Trish Stratus who she idolized growing up. Richard Kamchen out in Winnipeg got to interview Jon Moxley, who is of course Dean Ambrose now. So we wrote about him well before, when he was a madman doing all the hardcore stuff. These guys all enjoy those experiences.
I do enjoy the editing part, I still enjoy going to the Cauliflower Alley Club and seeing friends, and those kinds of stories are easy to write. Do I watch wrestling? No. I pay people to watch it for me. I just can’t be bothered. That’s the reality of it, but I have other interests – I do hockey writing, too, I have my family. That’s just the long and short of it.