In the field of pro wrestling photography, George Napolitano's name has consistently been at the top of the list from wrestling's days as a regional, territorial attraction to the modern era of sports entertainment. A new 320-page coffee table book, High Spots and Hot Shots, collects over 400 photographs from Napolitano's personal archives that the native New Yorker and one-time wrestling magazine impresario suggests barely skim the surface of his back pages.
"I can't even give you a number of how many there are in different files, situations and places," he told SLAM! Wrestling recently. "Coming up with these, I wouldn't say they are necessarily the absolute best I have, because I have some that are just as good. If I had to go and pick out just what I consider my personal best, I'd still be comparing one to the other trying to choose them."
Napolitano isn't kidding around when he speaks of the vast archive from which High Spots and Hot Shots' contents -- a fascinating cross-section of pro wrestling that spans nearly three decades -- were culled. Having begun his career in-ring photography by contributing to such early publications as the original Wrestling Revue, Napolitano went on to use wrestling's territory system as a well of copy material for his own line of magazines including Wrestling Scene, Wrestling's Main Event and Ringside Wrestling. As Napolitano remembers, he would attend a couple of shows each month in a territory hotbed, such as Atlanta, GA, or Richmond, VA, and get as many photos as he could.
"I would always make a trip twice a month to wherever the big shows were, be it Houston or St. Louis or Florida. Those shows almost became like the pay-per-view for that month, so to say. I would focus on the big matches, but also take enough pictures of the undercards to put feature stories in the magazines about those guys when I wasn't there in the territories. That way, I could cover everybody. During those days, before widespread cable, people didn't really see know about guys from other territories unless you saw them in the magazines."
Several mementos from Napolitano's days traipsing the territories are included in High Spots and Hot Shots. Taken from outside the ring, behind the scenes and elsewhere are vintage '70s snapshots of "Classy" Freddie Blassie, Mil Mascaras, The Sheik, Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka, Pat Patterson and Andre the Giant, to name a few. Also included is one of the earliest shots of Randy Savage taken when a lanky, almost unrecognizable Randy Poffo, still a minor league baseball player, was years away from cultivating his famous Macho Man persona. "I like that picture. Nobody even knew who Savage was at the time. I think that was even before they did the ICW stuff in Kentucky," Napolitano said.
Two pages document some of the earliest shots taken of a young Paul Levesque, the future Triple H, alongside his trainer, Killer Kowalski. Napolitano remembers that Levesque was still doing spot shows in high school gyms around Connecticut at the time as he'd just begun climbing the ladder to the big leagues. "He was somebody who looked colorful and, usually, if I saw a guy that looked colorful I would take a few more pictures. Kowalski told me that was his guy and he was going to be good. I saw (Levesque) a few months after that picture was taken and, honestly, didn't even recognize him. He thanked me for taking the picture and using another one of him in, I think it was Superstar Wrestler. He said he'd used it and sent it around. Guys would use that stuff as promotion to show where they'd been and what they'd done. If they were in a magazine, it showed they were doing something."
During the mid-1980s, when ringside photographers were barred from WWF events to eliminate competition with the new WWF Magazine, Napolitano spent much of his time in several of the NWA's regional territories. He remembers Richmond (Mid-Atlantic) and the Texas cities of Houston (Paul Boesch/Bill Watts) and Dallas (World Class) being some of his favorite territories to work. "You would always get good matches and action there. If you did the Houston show on a Friday night, besides whoever was in Texas at that time, you'd always get a fly-in from somebody who was a big star somewhere else. I thought Friday nights in Houston were the best."
There are shots of many NWA greats featured in High Spots and Hot Shots that won't be found anywhere else now that Napolitano's publications have ceased to be. Candid glimpses of Ric Flair, the Von Erichs, Dusty Rhodes and the Fabulous Freebirds are present, as are such compelling action shots as Dennis Condrey and Road Warrior Hawk dangling from underneath the rickety scaffold that hosted Starrcade '86's Skywalkers match between the Midnight Express and the Legion of Doom.
When it came to getting past wrestling's kayfabe barrier, it didn't hurt that Napolitano would often ride from town to town with "the boys." He remembers being a frequent traveling companion with Jake Roberts and the Road Warriors during the early 1980s. A featured photo of Flair leisurely chatting on a rotary telephone while lying in a lush hotel bed personifies the "styling, profiling" image of the Nature Boy. At the height of his 1980s tenure as world champ, Flair looks like he'd used up eight out of nine lives the night before.
"That was in Richmond. I was driving with him the next morning to go somewhere and, of course, Ric wasn't ready. He said 'don't worry,' and I kept saying, 'Ric, we're going to be late.' I didn't put him in bed. I just walked in the room and he happened to be there like that. I had my camera out, so I just adjusted it and shot the picture. I want to say I was driving him to Charlotte somewhere the next morning and we had to go do something in between."
If the NWA/WCW brought Napolitano and legions of other fans some of most "real" wrestling photo ops to be seen during the '80s and '90s, international promotions in Japan and Puerto Rico provided some of the most dangerous. Several bloody shots of death and fire matches from both areas are featured in the book, including some of dueling goliaths Bruiser Brody and Abdullah the Butcher, who Napolitano remembers once made the unwilling photographer part of the show. "He actually stuck his hand outside the ring, lifted me up and put my head between the ropes. He thought it was cute that I was dangling between the ropes there. He thought it was good spot for him."
That spot in Puerto Rico may have been done in jest by the rascally Butcher, but photographing the deadly antics of Japan's FMW promotion, run by Puerto Rico alumnus Mr. Pogo, was anything but lighthearted fun for Napolitano. One shot that really captures the eye shows the always death-defying Terry Funk and Pogo unleashing a cannon of fire onto opponent Hayabusa during one of many "no rope, exploding barbed wire" matches the promotion presented during the 1990s. "I was right there and felt the heat of the flames as they erupted. Funk spent the night in the hospital recovering from third-degree burns," writes Napolitano. "On the left side of the page you can see they were using gasoline."
Another FMW photo shows the gruesome after-effects of an electrified barbed wire match fought by women wrestlers Megumi Kodo and Combat Toyoda, which Napolitano says was one of the "wildest" he ever witnessed. "I didn't want to get too close because I didn't know these people. That one was probably scarier than (the one with Pogo and Funk) because I had no idea of what to expect. You could smell the skin being burned. That girl definitely got burnt," he remembered.
Another favorite promotion that receives considerable attention in High Spots and Hot Shots is the original ECW. Napolitano's photos of such extreme mainstays as Rob Van Dam, Sabu, Taz and the Dudleys remind us of how jaw-dropping their shock value spots were during the outlaw company's heyday, as well as how under-the-radar many of the now household names were during ECW's formative years. "Those guys like (Rey) Mysterio and Van Dam were not big names at the time. They later became big names but, that that time, nobody knew who they were. As far as shooting goes, it was so chaotic and you never did know what to expect (from ECW)."
Though free-flowing crimson often dots its pages, High Spots and Hot Shots is not all blood and gore. A chapter of the book collects some of the most candid shots from the Napolitano archive taken of such wrestling legends as Abdullah, Mascaras, Blassie and Andre sharing the spotlight with the photographer's children, friends and family members. "If there was a show in New York, a lot of times some of the wrestlers would come to my house and eat before or after the matches. To (my two sons) it wasn't actually that big a deal or anything new because they were used to it. But, years later, you have different kids who are in some of those pictures who still remember when I brought Hawk to their basketball game or when the Honky Tonk Man came to their baseball game."
As the territories diminished and WCW began waging war with the WWF, Napolitano continued to document how wrestling's next generation unfolded throughout the '90s -- when "Stone Cold" Steve Austin vs. The Rock and the NWO vs. WCW became the two hottest angles in the business. He remembers how the persona of Hollywood Hogan, captured in multiple eras throughout the book, was, at first, intended as an inside rib against the former All-American ring hero.
"He re-energized WCW, but it wasn't supposed to be (like that). They were trying to put a knock on him when he first became the hero, then the anti-hero. They didn't think that was going to work for Hogan and was going to bring him down a few steps, but he just ran with it. He ended up making those guys (the NWO) last a lot longer than they would have otherwise."
Surprisingly, Napolitano seldom found himself on the receiving end of action that spilled forth from the ring. "I never really got injured, per say, but I did get knocked over. Gorilla Monsoon, who couldn't see well, fell on me one time at Madison Square Garden. I got stuck between two people on the left and right of me and didn't have anywhere to go but down," he chuckled. "In the '90s, especially, you had to be on the lookout for a ladder coming over your head or a chair flying past you. I did get singed one time in a fire match between Hercules Ayala and Carlos Colon because every time the air conditioning turned on, the flames blew in my direction. You didn't know exactly when that was going to happen and I had to be careful. My whole thing was always be aware of your surroundings."
One factor that makes many to the photos chronicled in High Spots and Hot Shots so special was that the fan in Napolitano always loved to be surprised by the outcome of matches. He remembers almost being smartened up to an important entry in wrestling's history books one April night in 1977 when Bruno Sammartino's second WWWF title reign came to an end at the hands, and rope-assisted feet, of Superstar Billy Graham.
"I drove Superstar to Baltimore that night to go against Bruno. He told me, 'You better have a lot of film tonight.' I asked him what for because I already had enough pictures of him against Bruno and it was a Saturday night in Baltimore so I didn't think anything big was going to happen. He said, 'Tonight's special, you're gonna want some better ones tonight.' He was telling me, but didn't really tell me, you know? I didn't even ask him why, because I didn't want to know. Not knowing exactly what was going to happen always made me ready for something."
"You had to just watch and be ready and know what was going on," Napolitano continued. "Everything followed some set pattern of sorts, although we were never told the pattern. If you shot enough and watched enough, you kind of knew what somebody would do and when. You might kind of know a guy's spot set, but it was more instinct than anything. There was no auto focus either, so you had to know how to focus the camera, set the flash and make sure the exposure was correct. You couldn't look at the back of your camera and say, 'Uh, let's do that one again."
Today, Napolitano still shoots wrestling, though on a more limited basis. In a twist of irony, many of his shots now appear in Pro Wrestling Illustrated, the publication that, under the editorship of fellow ringside photog Bill Apter, was for many years a friendly competitor to Napolitano's ring mags. The realm of subjects he shoots has broadened and these days Napolitano can more often be found photographing a red carpet movie premiere or film festival instead of a wrestling event.
"Most people didn't know who the photographer was," says George Napolitano, the photograher of this memorable photo of Andre the Giant with woman wrestlers Daisy Mae, Donna Christantello, Debbie Johnson and Vicki Williams.
"I'm not doing (my own magazines) anymore, so I don't go to all the places as often. I will go, on occasion, mostly to WWE shows and some ROH stuff. I go to TNA when it's near me, which is not often. Today, I mainly shoot celebrities. Not as a paparazzi, but for PR and photography companies doing concerts, movie premieres and red carpet events. Johnny Depp, Sarah Jessica Parker, Antonio Banderas -- I know who these people are, now, having shot them. I know them; they don't know me. But it gives me something to do because, honestly, I get bored since I don't write stories or do the magazines like I used to."
A host of wrestling legends and current superstars, however, still know who Napolitano is and what he does best. For those who have seen his work in print or used in other media, as well as those just discovering pro wrestling's storied past, High Spots and Hot Shots will provide a revealing, sometimes touching look at many of the men and women who made -- and continue to make -- it a subject truly like no other.
"A lot of them, like the one with Andre holding the four girl wrestlers up on his arms, have been seen elsewhere, but most people didn't know who the photographer was. People look through the book and every third or fourth page they'll go 'Oohh, you took that picture? I've seen that picture.' A lot of people will ask me about the young one of Savage and also about Nancy Benoit (Woman) and if I knew them. That one of Andre may be the most famous one (in the book). Whether you're a wrestling fan or not, somehow, somewhere, you've probably seen that picture."
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Michael Andrews played a lot of telephone / email tag with George Napolitano to get this story done.