Before the WWE Network, it took a lot more effort to get your wrestling fill, particularly of foreign promotions. Image: Simon Q / Flickr
Nowadays it’s pretty easy to watch pro wrestling from all over the world. With just a credit card and a reliable internet connection, you can watch anything from WWE’s WrestleMania to New Japan Pro Wrestling’s annual Tokyo Dome event. But before broadband became commonplace, many hardcore pro wrestling fans relied on the ancient art of tape trading to get their wrestling fix, whether it be on a regional level in the US, such as Smoky Mountain Wrestling (which only operated in the Tennessee area during the early to mid 90s) or internationally, such as Japan's Frontier Martial Arts Wrestling or Mexico's Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre, which recently celebrated its 83rd anniversary and is the oldest wrestling promotion in the world.
With the popularity of the VHS tape format booming in the early to mid 1980s, many wrestling fans would trade tapes via wrestling newsletters that were mailed all over the world, with the Wrestling Observer Newsletter and Pro Wrestling Torch being the more prominent newsletters. It wasn’t just international tapes people were looking for since the wrestling business back then was still mostly regional; people could get tapes from many local promotions from all over the US that were on television. But as the internet came along, things became a lot easier.
“Message boards, chatrooms, email lists, newsletter connections, websites with ‘want lists’, there were dozens of different places to find people to trade with,” Wrestling Observer message board user japjesus told me. “It was pretty seamless, although if you didn't do your research you could easily get ripped off.”
The tape trading process was pretty simple. People would send a letter to someone who had tapes available for trade, which were often advertised in newsletters like the Wrestling Observer Newsletter and in the many printed magazines of the era. The trader would then send back a full list of what they had. In return, people would either trade for these tapes with tapes they had in their own collection or would pay money outright to obtain them.
“The biggest [pain in the ass] was that a lot of the traders were super snobs about it and were only interested in trading,” another Wrestling Observer message board member, spman, told me. “No interest in just flat out selling tapes for cash, which didn't do a whole lot of good for anyone just starting out.”
It was a risk versus reward scenario for fans who delved into this secretive underbelly. On one hand, they could get footage that they’d only ever read about in newsletters or magazines. But they could also be ripped off just as easily, with swindlers popping up in every corner looking for tapes or even money without reimbursement.
“It was weird but you knew that if you didn't, you weren't getting tapes, so you had to take the leap,” CaramelLuchador, another member of the message board, told me. “And if you found a good trader, it didn't feel weird for long because you knew they could be trusted to come through.”
While the rise of broadband internet, YouTube, and other streaming services rendered a lot of tape trading obsolete, the practice still exist. Sites like IVPVideos still sells most footage not owned by WWE on Blu-ray and DVDs. And if you attend your local independent wrestling promotion, you’re bound to run across tables selling compilation DVDs of famous wrestlers, Japanese and Mexican footage that’s still hard to obtain, and more. While everything today, both old and new, can be easily obtained online, tape trading aficionados like powerfulmgp will always look back and reminisce about the good ol' days.
“I really loved trading," he told me. "Everything is instantly available nowadays, but there are times where I still wish it was like the old days where I'd race to the mailbox after school hoping for a new pack or tapes or newsletter. It was a simpler world.”
from How Pro Wrestling Fans Watched Foreign Matches Before the Internet