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Wade Keller: The man holding up the Pro Wrestling Torch

Wade Keller: The man holding up the Pro Wrestling Torch
Ramon Villalobos

Walk into Wade Keller's plush townhouse in a quiet part of Eagan and you'll have no idea you're entering one of the world's major hotspots for wrestling journalism. There's no Ultimate Warrior decal on the wall, no championship belt displayed on a mantle, no wrestling ring in the basement.

In fact, Keller's family members — his four-year-old son, Bowie, and his longtime partner, Cory — have no interest in pro wrestling whatsoever. Ask little Bowie if he's into it, and without a moment's hesitation, he exclaims, "No!"

Nonetheless, Keller continues to churn out pro wrestling reports, columns, and podcasts for the web, along with a weekly newsletter sent to thousands of subscribers throughout the world.

Keller founded the Pro Wrestling Torch 26 years ago, and his comfortable residence in Eagan is the house that wrestling built. Born in Bloomington, Keller started off as a fan of the Minneapolis-based American Wrestling Association, and he says he still gets excited to see a five-star match or a great promo. But these days, writing and talking about wrestling is his job first and foremost.

"Wrestling is not my escape, and it can't be," Keller says. "Because when I watch it, I'm thinking about things that produce a good portion of stress in my life, which is my job and running a business and deadlines, so I can't watch wrestling and not be thinking about work."

At the same time, Keller's challenge is to make sure his subscribers, many of whom do view wrestling as an escape, remain entertained.

"The way I approach it is I watch it as a journalist, but I report on it with a tone for people where it is their escape [and they] can enjoy it and not feel stupid for liking it," he says.

But on this day, Keller is going back in time to an era when he was just a fan. Down in his theater room, he puts on an old AWA tape that he dubbed to DVD.

Footage of Mad Dog Vachon pounding nails into a rickety-looking coffin deep in the depths of a Twin Cities basement lights up the projection screen. Mean Gene Okerlund sticks his microphone in Mad Dog's face.

"This is for my friend, Jerry Fatwell!" Mad Dog growls, making fun of his rotund enemy, Jerry Blackwell. "I've waited a long time for something like this."

It was the spring of 1982, and the AWA was at the peak of its power. Mad Dog was about to cut one of the AWA's more memorable promos.

"Jerry Blackwell put me out of wrestling for two and a half years," Mad Dog barks, before interjecting this very Minnesotan twist: "I had to work in the mines to make my money!"

A young Keller watched that promo on KMSP Channel 9's Sunday morning All-Star Wrestling show, and his anticipation for the upcoming Mad Dog-Blackwell "death match" swelled. His mom agreed to take him to the Met Center for the card.

Back then Keller still wasn't smart to the business. He thought it was real.

"I was in the crowd, and when Gene explained the rules, that the match ends when somebody can't get up after 30 seconds, and I didn't know until that moment that a death match didn't end when somebody literally died," Keller says. "And I was still wondering, 'Oh, there's a 30-second rest period — does that mean he's dead?'"

RIGHT AROUND THE SAME TIME Prince was blowing up nationally, Hulkamania was running wild in Minnesota. The AWA was already hot before Hogan: The first match Wade ever attended — Verne Gagne's May 1981 retirement match against Nick Bockwinkel at the St. Paul Civic Center — drew 18,000 spectators. But Hulk's debut in August 1981 took the excitement to another level.

Hogan was 6'8", 325 pounds, with charisma to spare. Shortly after he debuted in the AWA, Rocky III came out, and Hogan's role as "Thunderlips" made him a movie star. AWA promoters initially wrote his storylines in such a way that fans were supposed to boo him, but they refused, so Hogan was quickly turned into a fan favorite.

The resulting big leg-dropping, bad guy-stomping babyface gimmick was pretty much identical to the one fans throughout the world came to know and love during Hogan's legendary World Wrestling Federation run years later.

But while Hogan was clearly the most popular babyface in the AWA, owner Verne Gagne refused to give him the belt.

"It was kind of embarrassing for Verne, as an old-guard promoter, that he would be headlining with a guy who didn't know a wristlock from a wristwatch," Keller says of the Hulkster's lack of wrestling prowess. "So there was this reluctance to embracing Hogan."

A major turning point in AWA history occurred on April 24, 1983, during Hogan's title match against Bockwinkel. Hogan had been chasing the belt for more than a year, but Bockwinkel's manager, the legendary Bobby "the Brain" Heenan, kept screwing him out of it. The expectation headed into April 24 was that this would finally be the night Hogan would be crowned champion, and demand for tickets reached a fever pitch.

 

"The Civic Center and adjacent St. Paul Auditorium were packed with 29,000 fans. They were convinced that this was the night that the title would change hands, and they paid increased ticket prices to see that happen," George Schire writes in Minnesota's Golden Age of Wrestling. "As soon as the match was announced it was completely sold out, a full two and a half weeks before the card, with fans paying a total of $300,000 to watch."

But Verne still wasn't ready to pull the trigger on Hogan. The match had yet another screwy finish: Hogan secured the pinfall and apparently the championship, but his victory was subsequently overturned when AWA President Stanley Blackburn entered the ring and informed the referee that Hogan had illegally thrown Bockwinkel over the top rope while his back was to the action.

Fans were outraged. In fact, Schire characterizes the match as the one "that sealed the demise of wrestling in the Twin Cities and the AWA."

Within the year, Vince McMahon, owner of the New York-based WWF, had signed Hogan away. The WWF began a full-scale invasion of AWA territory the next year. McMahon's first-ever Minnesota show occurred on January 17, with the WWF running six more in the state before the year was over. The January show at the Met Center was headlined by a match that had been an AWA main event just weeks before — Hogan versus "Dr. Death" David Schultz.

Six days later, Vince McMahon did what Verne Gagne wouldn't — he put the championship belt on the Hulkster, as Hogan defeated the Iron Sheik for the WWF strap in Madison Square Garden. It was clear he was the Next Big Thing, and he had left the AWA for the brighter lights of New York City.

Even though he was just becoming smart to the business, Keller remembers thinking at the time that the AWA was on the ropes. During a TV show in the summer of '84, Keller recalls AWA co-founder Wally Karbo telling fans, "There's this other company that claims to be the major leagues, but they're not. The AWA is the major league and always will be."

Keller could see through the boast. "Even at 13 or 14, I was like, 'Wow, they're getting kind of desperate.' They're scared."

The AWA would never recover from McMahon's talent raid, which resulted in Hogan, Schultz, Okerlund, Jesse "The Body" Ventura, Bobby Heenan, and even Mad Dog (among many others) jumping ship. Clearly relegated to minor league status, the promotion that established the Twin Cities as a wrestling capital quietly faded into oblivion by 1991.

KELLER'S FIRST LOVE was the AWA, but by the mid-1980s cable TV had made it possible for him to watch wrestling events across the country from the comfort of his mother's Bloomington home. Before too long he decided to become more than a passive observer.

Asked why he decided to start the Torch a few months after his 16th birthday in 1987, Keller says it simply seemed like the natural thing to do.

"I was into the Lou Grant show growing up. I was into journalism," Keller says. "And from the earliest age, whether it was selling candy bars for Little League baseball or running a Kool-Aid stand in my front yard, I was always into running businesses. I just combined them with my love of wrestling and it swept me away."

The earliest Pro Wrestling Torch newsletters are professional albeit humble things: eight pages long and typed out on a typewriter plagued by several sticky keys, with Keller using a ruler and pen to draw the lines demarcating the stories and columns from one another. He sketched the banner logo himself. The content featured a mix of quick-hitting news bits, satire pieces, event reports, and editorials, with large photos on the cover, most of them taken by Keller himself. A subscription cost $5 for four issues.

But relatively primitive appearances aside, Keller already had a keen understanding of how to build readership and cultivate sources.

"We had volunteer field reporters who were readers," Keller says. "The way I got information quickly back then was mostly people calling in and leaving phone messages, 'Hey, I was at Wrestlemania and this is what happened.'"

In those pre-internet days, Keller and other "dirt sheet" writers across the country also made a practice of plugging each other's publications.

"We just had an ecosystem where we'd give generous plugs to each other," Keller says. "I got a reputation pretty quickly of doing good work, 'This is a guy to keep an eye on, he's in the AWA home base so he's got some stuff other people don't have.'"

 

On the sources front, Keller attended the AWA and independent shows that came through the Twin Cities, where he networked with wrestlers, promoters, and others involved in the wrestling community.

"I was way more fearless about that stuff than now," Keller says. "I look back and it's like, 'How did I come across to the old guard of referees and announcers and stuff?' I was this tall, thin, spindly teenager walking in and introducing myself."

One wrestler Keller connected with in the Twin Cities during those days was Sean Waltman, who went on to stardom in the WWF (renamed World Wrestling Entertainment in 2002) as X-Pac.

Waltman, who is just about a year younger than Keller, moved from Tampa to Minnesota to wrestle for Minneapolis-based Pro Wrestling America when he was 17 in the late '80s. He remembers Wade coming up to introduce himself after a show in Fridley.

"He had just started the Torch a couple years earlier when I met him, and it was still really raw, but you could tell it was good even way back then," Waltman says. "He had done a good job getting lots of information. He'd ask me early on, before I went to work for WWE and places like that, he'd ask me to explain in-ring things to him, and we'd have lots of conversations about the art of wrestling, the business aspect of it, philosophy."

Though Waltman and Keller struck up a friendship that continues to this day — Waltman is a regular guest on Keller's Interview Friday podcast — the future 1-2-3 Kid also had self-interested reasons for building relationships with a dirt-sheet writer.

"The publicity he's given me throughout my career was extremely important in my success," Waltman admits.

In contrast to the sorts of pro wrestling publications you'd find in supermarket magazine racks, the Pro Wrestling Torch and other dirt sheets, such as Dave Meltzer's Wrestling Observer Newsletter, were free of "kayfabe," or the illusion that wrestling is "real." Instead, they acknowledged the matches are generally predetermined but critiqued them aesthetically, and did actual reporting about behind-the-scenes stuff like contract negotiations, political machinations, injuries, and how those things manifested in the storylines fans would see on TV.

In those early days, the old-school wrestlers and promoters didn't exactly welcome the media. Waltman says that years later, when he was working for the WWF, he quoted a match rating out of the Torch during a conversation with "the boys" in the locker room and "was ridiculed to no end for it."

"Everybody in the locker room would sneer and snicker and talk shit about you for reading it, but they were all doing it in private," Waltman says.

Talking to the sheets was risky — Waltman remembers a wrestler who "was writing down stuff and reporting to the sheets" and ended up being "blackballed" from the industry when he was outed — but the quality of Keller's reporting provided cover.

"Wade never printed anything I told him without getting it from another source or two," Waltman says. "I found him to have the most integrity of anybody that covers wrestling."

Keller remembers having a conversation with Greg Gagne, son of Verne, in the lobby of the KSTP-AM studios before they did an appearance on a sports talk show sometime in the late 1980s.

"I used a term like 'babyface' or 'heel,' and Greg looked over at the receptionist and was like, 'Shhh, she shouldn't hear that,'" Keller says. "So Greg was really of the kayfabe era and didn't really respect or like what I did because he felt it would hurt the business if people suspected or knew that it was a work."

Though Keller says his readership has been primarily national from day one, the novelty of a 16-year-old publishing his own wrestling newsletter led to articles from the Bloomington Sun Current, the Pioneer Press, and also later on from the Star Tribune. That coverage, combined with networking at local wrestling events, brought in a bunch of local subscribers.

One of them was then-WCCO radio reporter and longtime wrestling fan Eric Eskola, who remains a Torch subscriber to this day.

"I'm a big pro wrestling fan and he had a good newsletter on the intricacies and behind-the-scenes aspect of pro wrestling, and what bookers and writers were angling for even at an early age," Eskola says. "I enjoyed reading his product, I contacted him, and for many years WCCO had him on taking calls and the response out of the gate was very strong — I remember full phone lines. There was quite an appetite for pro wrestling at the time."

 

Around the same time, a comment Verne Gagne made during one of Keller's early "Torch Talk" interviews helped raise Keller's profile nationally.

Simply getting the don of the AWA to sit down with him was a coup for Keller, then 19. But even better, at least for the sake of his budding career as a wrestling journalist, was Gagne's response when asked to give "a few thoughts" on Bruiser Brody, a former AWA superstar who the year before was stabbed to death in a Puerto Rico locker room under mysterious circumstances.

"Probably got what he asked for," Gagne told Keller.

Gagne's comments about Brody presented Wade his first huge scoop.

"It made huge news — everybody reported, 'Wade Keller got Verne on record to say Bruiser Brody got what he asked for,'" Keller recalls. "That kind of established the Torch Talk brand as a big thing and it gave me a taste of, 'Oh, if I do these interviews and ask probing questions and get somebody to say something, there's no legitimate media asking these questions in any context, so that'll make news and be a service to readers.' That's the centerpiece of what the Torch got known for."

KELLER GRADUATED from Bloomington Kennedy High School in 1989, just months before his sit-down with Gagne. He started that fall at Macalester College and would graduate in four years with a degree in economics. Though he was a full-time student, Keller shifted from a biweekly to a weekly publication.

In 1991, he was able to hire his first full-time employee: his mom. Nancy had already been instrumental in the Torch's expansion. Her job with Northwest Airlines allowed Wade to fly anywhere in the country for $25, and he used the perk to travel to big pay-per-view events on the East Coast. He would bring hundreds of copies of the Torch to hand out to fellow fans.

"I have readers today who remember me handing them a newsletter in the lobby," Keller says. "They're reading it before the show and they got hooked because they didn't know anything like that existed."

But by the time he was in college, Keller needed somebody to handle Torch subscription processing full-time. His mom was up for the task.

"One of my most vivid memories in life is the day I left for college classes and my mom is sitting there with her little one-piece Mac with her home office set up in the kitchen and she was like, 'I didn't have to go to work today, this is my work,'" Keller says. "It was very exciting."

Keller's graduation from Mac came a year before an event that shook up the wrestling world in a major way — the Vince McMahon steroid trial.

McMahon had been indicted on charges he'd conspired to distribute steroids to WWF wrestlers. With the leader of the world's preeminent wrestling promotion facing up to eight years in prison, the future of the promotion was very much in the air.

Keller felt compelled to fly to Uniondale, New York, to cover the trial. In the courtroom, he saw McMahon, fresh off neck surgery, in a very different light.

"It was so funny when Vince walked into the courtroom with his neck brace on," Keller says. "It was like a Brady Bunch episode — I wanted to throw my briefcase to see if he'd jerk his head and it was fake. He had optional neck surgery, which made sense, because he wasn't going to be on TV during the trial and if he went to prison he didn't want to have a lot of neck problems sleeping on those cots, but it was like, 'Really Vince, you're wearing a neck brace for sympathy before the jury?'"

As it turned out, Minnesota native and former AWA wrestler Kevin Wacholz played a key role in McMahon's eventual acquittal. Wacholz, who wrestled in the WWF with a prisoner gimmick under the moniker "Nailz," testified that McMahon asked him to take steroids. But Wacholz's testimony rang hollow.

"I have coverage from the time saying, '[Wacholz] has no credibility, he wore a prison outfit, and there's no way Vince, being as careful as he is, was telling a guy who wears a loose prison outfit to get on steroids,'" Keller says. "I think the decision [to acquit] was correct legally, but [Vince] was scared and had reason to be."

The wrestling world changed rapidly following Vince's acquittal, and once again Hulk Hogan was at the middle of it.

With McMahon understandably looking to move away from performers with the steroid-infused look that defined pro wrestling in the '80s, Hogan bolted WWF for Ted Turner's World Championship Wrestling in 1994. The next year, the WCW decided to challenge the WWF head-to-head with Monday Nitro, a show that aired on TNT at the same time Raw was on USA.

 

Keller attended the first Nitro, which was broadcast from the Mall of America rotunda on September 4, 1995. Once again the Twin Cities was the capital of the wrestling world, albeit for only one night this time.

"I knew from the very first Nitro at the Mall of America that Eric [Bischoff] had put something special together," Keller says. "With the production values and wrestling, it was such a contrast to what Raw was at that point, and Vince needed a kick in the butt."

At an MOA bar after the show, Keller chatted with Kevin Sullivan, then the WCW's booker. Sullivan told Keller he didn't expect Nitro's ratings to be strong at first, but just a week later, Nitro bested Raw.

"And it was like, 'Holy shit, this is a war,'" Keller says.

IN 1996, the WCW, backed by Ted Turner's money, was doing to the WWF what McMahon did to Gagne and the AWA more than a decade earlier — buying up talent in an attempt to drive its competitor out of business.

With McMahon's promotion reeling, Keller broke one of the biggest wrestling stories of the year. WWF sources told him that one of the company's biggest stars — Scott Hall, a.k.a. Razor Ramon — was headed for WCW when his contract expired that spring.

"In order to protect my source I had to downplay the story," Keller recalls. "But I knew [Kevin] Nash might be next and who knows about Shawn Michaels when his contact is up. I knew Vince wasn't willing to give $750,000 guaranteed to guys who were making $250,000 to $350,000 at that point."

In light of the first-row seat he had for the terminal decline of the AWA, Keller remembers one especially ironic call he received around this time.

"Vince called me multiple times during the Monday Night Wars, and one time he just called me up to bitch about Ted Turner," Keller says. "He was like, 'Wade, do you understand how crazy Ted Turner is? Let me read you these quotes, you gotta cover this guy.'"

A couple of years later, Keller received another unsolicited call from McMahon. This time, he was hoping Keller could provide him with some intel about his most popular wrestler, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin.

"I was doing a lot of reporting about why Steve was really upset [with Vince and WWF management], and Vince was having trouble managing him and it was starting to get to him," Keller says. "So Vince called me because he figured I was either talking to Steve or people close to Steve, and he said, 'Wade, you're hearing more stuff about what's going on in Steve's head than I am, can you help me out?'"

It's because of these moments that Keller was able to view McMahon as deeper than the jerk boss character he portrays on TV.

"Thing is, I had seen Vince at his most vulnerable," Keller recalls. "I saw him at his most vulnerable every day in the courtroom, and it brought him down from this wrestling-promoter god to a human being who was really scared, and so when he called, he had become a little more humanized because I had seen him like that."

THE STORY OF KELLER and the Torch is not just about wrestling. It's also about journalism and how the media has evolved over the years.

Since the beginning, the one constant has been the newsletter. But the audio component of Keller's business has gone through three dramatic transitions since 1987.

From 1990 to '93, Keller hosted a pro wrestling show on KFAN. Next he created a 1-900 hotline that charged 99 cents per minute for the latest news and analysis. With the internet in its infancy and the Monday Night Wars just beginning, the 900 number was a cash cow.

"On big news days, there'd be people who would listen for 10 minutes, sometimes hundreds of people," Keller says. "In one day I'd earn thousands of dollars. It was smaller numbers most days, but some people were willing to spend $100 a month calling."

With thousands of free podcasts just a click away today, that rate may sound exorbitant. But it was standard for phone hotlines at the time, and Keller did all he could to make sure people plopping down a buck a minute for wrestling news got their money's worth.

"My motto was, 'The biggest news the first minute,' and it was a counter to the 900 numbers that were known to be sleazy," Keller says.

The rise of the internet, along with the purchase of WCW by McMahon in 2001, brought an end both to the 900 number revenue and the wrestling golden age that was the Monday Night Wars.

 

"I had seen it with the AWA and the territories. WCW just became such a burden to watch, and it was so painful to see the mismanagement and the inmates running the asylum," Keller says. "To me it was almost a mercy killing."

Nonetheless, the Torch suffered a financial downturn along with the wrestling business.

"When WCW went under it was a down time because I underestimated how many people followed wrestling through the Torch because they were hometown WCW fans, and when it died that was the final chapter for a lot of people who followed wrestling closely," Keller says. "Our business took a hit afterward.... I thought if people like wrestling they're going to find a way to like WWE or something else, and they didn't."

But in November 2003, Keller implemented an innovation that in today's media landscape seems way ahead of its time — a paywall.

People who log onto pwtorch.com these days can get top news stories and some podcasts for free, but a good portion of the text and audio content produced by Keller and his six other paid columnists is "VIP" exclusive. Online membership costs $10 monthly. Keller won't be specific when asked how many subscribers he has throughout the world, but says: "We've always had thousands of subscribers but never had 30,000."

Keller says the move to paywall online content was partly about making a buck and partly a response to frustrations with other wrestling websites constantly stealing his reporting.

"It's just something that made sense for us to do early on, but watching it happen a few years later with newspapers like the New York Times — we kinda had that model in place years before all the bigger corporate entities did it," Keller says. "I was watching other websites take our news from the 900 number or the newsletter and reprint it, and it got to the point where it was like, 'I gotta do something.'"

That business model has proven successful for other major wrestling websites, including Jason Powell's ProWrestling.net. Powell met Keller at a WWF show in the Met Center, and the two became fast friends. Years later, Keller hired him as "a jack of all trades" for the Torch. He eventually became Keller's associate editor.

Powell never went to college, but after five years of working for Keller, he had all the journalistic and entrepreneurial knowledge he needed to set out on his own. His site now draws similar traffic to the Torch.

"It was like a college education," Powell says. "I learned so much during the Torch run."

In a way, Powell and Keller compete over slices of the same pro wrestling pie. Yet the two remain close friends and actually co-host a Torch podcast each Tuesday.

"It helps when Jason's on my show because he's bringing his readers and they get to hear me plug my VIP site," Keller says. "We're still close friends and work together."

So even though the AWA is long gone, two of the three most prolific pro wrestling websites in the world operate out of the Twin Cities. That's only possible because of the role cable played in turning big time professional wrestling into a TV product, with live events becoming an afterthought.

These days, Keller is torn about attending events even when they're in the Twin Cities.

"I'm covering a TV product and if I'm at a pay-per-view, I don't hear the commentary, I don't see the production values, I don't know what camera angles were missed, I don't know how the crowd came off," he says. "So a lot of what I do is like reviewing movies in a theater. You wouldn't go to a movie set to review a movie."

ON APRIL 6, Wrestlemania 30 will be the first major event broadcast live on the brand-new WWE Network, which is a streaming internet video service containing the WWE's entire library — including the AWA. For all that, subscribers pay $9.99 a month, which is a drop in the bucket compared to the $70 the HD Wrestlemania broadcast costs on pay-per-view.

To commemorate the occasion, McMahon has brought back — who else? — Hulk Hogan.

With gnarly photos of his surgically repaired back floating around the internet, Hogan, now 60, is too broken down to actually wrestle. But as Wrestlemania host, the most popular wrestler in history is meant, in part, to serve as the living embodiment of the industry's past, most of which happens to now be available for streaming on the WWE Network.

The network is a stunning achievement that dramatically reduces the amount of leverage the cable companies have over the WWE product, but it also dramatically increases the gap between WWE and all other wrestling promotions.

 

Keller says he misses the days of the Monday Night Wars, but also the inter-promotional rivalry that played a big role in attracting him to wrestling in the first place: the AWA versus the WWF.

On the bright side, the network will make it possible for fans who were too young to enjoy the Mad Dogs and the Gagnes to finally see what all the fuss is about on their computers or iPads, even if the days of a local pro wrestling show drawing 20,000 in St. Paul or Minneapolis are long gone.

"The WWE network is going to expose the AWA product to a new group of fans at some point. I'm excited about that," Keller says. "It's kind of a shame the AWA faded away the way it did, because the legacy of the championship and Nick Bockwinkel and the main event wrestlers... it isn't carrying on the way that the big main eventers in the NWA and the WWF did."

Keller acknowledges he's biased, however.

"I've seen everything cycle, but the best memories as a fan are when there's a little bit of a youthful innocence and everything is new," Keller says. "I see fans who look at every time period as I do the early 1980s."

Wade Keller
Benjamin Carter Grimes

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