These photos show what professional wrestling was like in the 1970s

From “Classic Wrestling: The wrestlers, the crowds, the old Boston Garden.” (Greg Bowl)
From “Classic Wrestling: The wrestlers, the crowds, the old Boston Garden.” (Greg Bowl)

Photographer Greg Bowl spent his career doing commercial work but always made time for personal projects. One of those projects came about when he got interested in the psychology of professional wrestling. That led him to spend time in 1977 and 1978 photographing wrestling events at the Boston Garden.

After a few events, Bowl met a fairly well-known wrestler at the time: Walter “Killer” Kowalski. Kowalski was himself an amateur photographer and shopped at the same camera store Bowl frequented. One of Bowl’s friends who worked at the store saw their common interest and introduced them to each other.

Bowl eventually helped organize an exhibit of Kowalski’s work and, at the same time, benefited from the wrestler’s inside knowledge of the sport. Hanging out with Kowalski gave Bowl tantalizing glimpses of the wrestling world. On his website, Bowl recalls:

“One time at the Garden, when Walter was just going into the locker room, (off limits to photographers), I got a glimpse of what wrestlers did before going into the ring … playing cards, smoking, talking, drinking a beer. It brought home to me that these guys who traveled to the same venues, worked together, spent years together, were co-workers and friends.”

Bowl’s images at the Garden take us back to an era before the modern version of wrestling. It was far less glitzy back then, like most things these days. There was no fancy lighting or sound effects, and the wrestlers weren’t as ripped as they are today. As Bowl says on his website, people could “roam freely, smoke, even throw things at the ring when they didn’t like what was happening.”

The atmosphere during these wrestling events was as gritty as the pared-down sport was back then — and Bowl’s equally gritty black-and-white images are a mirror of all that. However, one thing remains true between the wrestling of the ’70s and the wrestling of today — it’s a sport about heroes and villains, good vs. bad, showmanship and entertainment.

Bowl’s photos invite us to meet both the wrestlers and the crowds caught up in all the drama. Though the sport has modernized, entertainment then, as now, lets us step out of our own realities for a moment. And the clear-cut representation of good vs. evil is a kind of solace in the many gray areas that “real” life throws at us.

You can see even more of Bowl’s wrestling images, and read more of their backstory, on his website.

In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff members and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.