Let me first preface this by saying I’m Canadian. My Thanksgiving was nearly two months ago. But like a lot of things, Thanksgiving is a completely different animal in the United States than it is in Canada. The turkeys are bigger. It’s the second biggest day of the year for football. There’s the biggest shopping day of the year the day after. And it’s essentially the start of the Christmas holiday season. But besides all that, Thanksgiving also used to be one of the biggest days of the year for professional wrestling in the United States.
The earliest record of a major professional wrestling event being held on Thanksgiving, according to Dave Meltzer (Wrestling Observer Newsletter), was on November 26th, 1959. This was a show promoted by one of the most influential “powerbrokers” in the history of professional wrestling, Jim Barnett, headlined by the Shire Brothers (Ray (later Stevens) and Roy) defending the NWA World Tag Team Championships against Dick the Bruiser and Yukon Eric, in front of a sellout crowd of 13,000 at the Indianapolis State Fairgrounds Coliseum. However, this was before the true beginning of Thanksgiving as a special day in wrestling. The true tradition of Thanksgiving as a special day in wrestling would come over the next two years.
First, it was the American Wrestling Association (AWA) that would begin running Thanksgiving events in Minneapolis-St. Paul in 1960, and would continue right on through the dying days of the promotion in 1987. But the tradition of a major wrestling event being held on Thanksgiving was perhaps no bigger than it was in Greensboro, North Carolina. An idea of Jim Crockett Sr. (Big Jim), father of the more well-known Jim Crockett Jr. of Jim Crockett Promotions (JCP) fame in the 80’s, the thought was fans would spend the day eating with families and then come out to see a major wrestling show in the evening. This idea proved to be correct, as it became a highly profitable affair for the company through 1987, and the Thanksgiving event became a mainstay for the fans in Greensboro. The first event on November 23rd, 1961, coincidentally enough also the first ever professional wrestling event held at the Greensboro Coliseum, was headlined by Argentina Rocca against Big Bob Orton (father of Bob Jr., grandfather of Randy) in what would be the first of many big Thanksgiving show main events. This would also be the precursor to what would eventually become Starrcade, one of the biggest and most influential events in the history of professional wrestling.
The first Starrcade was held on November 24th, 1983 at the Greensboro Coliseum. Affectionately titled “A Flair For The Gold”, the event was built around Ric Flair and his chase of his second NWA Worlds Heavyweight Championship from Harley Race, and he would ultimately win the championship in the main event inside a steel cage. Although Flair had already won the title once before, his title win at Starrcade ’83 would really be the catalyst and kickoff to his dominance and legendary run in the 80’s, as the consummate worlds champion. But Starrcade ’83 is also one of the most influential wrestling events in history, in a lot of ways the start of the modern era of professional wrestling. The event was available on closed-circuit to 17 locations across the Carolinas and into Puerto Rico (with Carlos Colón on the show), and although not the first professional wrestling event to be broadcast on closed-circuit, this was the one that would eventually lead to the first WrestleMania sixteen months later in March 1985.
But Thanksgiving being one the biggest days of the year for professional wrestling in the United States was really at its peak throughout the 80’s, with some of the biggest shows of the year being held across the country. Besides Starrcade there was also the AWA at the St. Paul Civic Centre, World Class Championship Wrestling (WCCW) with Star Wars at Reunion Arena in Dallas, and Mid-South at the Superdome in New Orleans. But by Thanksgiving 1987, the AWA, WCCW, and Mid-South were all bleeding out in their dying days, and Vince McMahon and the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) were hoping to do the same to Jim Crockett Promotions. Already not having enough money to compete with McMahon and the WWF, Crockett would still announce that his company would be doing their first pay-per-view (PPV) event, the fifth Starrcade titled “Chitown Heat” from the UIC Pavilion in Chicago. Battling the New York based WWF, the perception that his company was just a Southern based wrasslin’ company, Crockett felt a move from Greensboro (and Atlanta in ’86 and ’87) to Chicago was a way to combat this perception. Besides killing a tradition that had been started by his father some twenty-six years earlier, this move also left a sour taste in the mouth of the fans in Greensboro, with Ric Flair even pointing to the decision to move as the key moment in killing the Carolinas as a territory and ultimately Jim Crockett Promotions as a whole. However, the real nail in the coffin, or at least another one of them, in the death of Jim Crockett Promotions would be the creation of Survivor Series. The idea by Vince McMahon was basically done to hurt and prevent Crockett from being successful with their first PPV. Knowing that Vince McMahon and the WWF were already proven on PPV, coming off WrestleMania III that had done over 400,000 buys on PPV, Crockett decided to move Starrcade to the afternoon of Thanksgiving, but this just negated what had made Thanksgiving as a big, special day (more appropriately night) for wrestling in the first place. However, know that he had the leverage, Vince McMahon went to the cable companies and gave them an ultimatum. He told them that they would have to pick one show or the other, but if they chose to air Starrcade, they would not be able to air the following WrestleMania IV. Only five cable companies chose to air Starrcade – four in the Crockett stronghold of the Carolinas, and one in San Jose, California that had an agreement they would not break. The first Survivor Series from the Richfield Coliseum in Dayton, Ohio drew a sold-out crowd of 21,000, and 350,000 buys on PPV, while Starrcade ‘87 drew a sold-out crowd of 9,000, but just 16,500 buys on PPV. And despite the threat from McMahon and the WWF, all five of those companies were able to air the following WrestleMania IV.
Starrcade ’87 would ultimately be the last one held on Thanksgiving day/night. Shortly before Starrcade ’88, Jim Crockett Promotions would be bought by Ted Turner and become World Championship Wrestling (WCW), and Starrcade would move to a December PPV. The last true major wrestling event held on Thanksgiving would be Survivor Series 1990 from the Hartford Civic Centre, drawing a near sellout crowd of 13,000 and 380,000 buys on PPV. Considered a disappointing number at the time, the company made the decision to move the show to Thanksgiving Eve which was actually worse for business, and eventually to the traditional Sunday night slot. At present, Survivor Series is an event typically held on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, and although the WWE in recent years has brought back the Starrcade event, it is not held on Thanksgiving, and is basically a glorified house show being Starrcade in name only. Once one of the biggest days of the year for professional wrestling in the United States, Thanksgiving and wrestling are now just memories for the fans in Greensboro and all across the country, that got to experience the once great tradition.