During this Sunday’s TLC pay-per-view, fans can expect to see risky moves, big bumps, and probably wrestlers climbing ladders at frustratingly slow speeds.
Ever since Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels battled in the first WWF ladder match in 1992 — and particularly since Michaels and Razor Ramon popularized the match two years later — wrestling fans have developed high expectations for the genre. Some wrestlers have gone to borderline-absurd lengths to meet those expectations (Jeff Hardy and Shelton Benjamin spring to mind).
The matches are undeniably dangerous, which lends them an exciting sense of unpredictability. There’s something almost mythological about a man ascending above his peers to grasp a coveted prize, like Hercules climbing Mount Olympus or a hiker planting a flag atop Mount Everest. Or, if you don’t like symbolism, it’s fun to watch people get clobbered with large blunt objects.
Though many believe the ladder match originated with Hart and Michaels, it’s actually at least two decades older than that.
As far as anyone can tell, the first-ever ladder match happened in September 1972 — the exact date is fuzzy — in the Hart family’s venerable Calgary Stampede promotion.
The participants were Dan Kroffat and Tor Kamata — a classic pairing of the handsome Canadian headliner versus the dastardly Japanese thug who had a penchant for blinding opponents with a handful of salt.
Their feud had been box-office gold for a while, but when attendance numbers started to wane, Kroffat started brainstorming ways to lure audiences back. He envisioned a match during which a bag of cash dangled above the ring, and the wrestlers battled one another until one was able to climb an eight-foot ladder to grab it.
Kroffat’s instincts were correct: the matches drew fans back to the arena in droves, partly because of Kamata’s willingness to take risky bumps from the top of the ladder.
Eventually, Kroffat realized the match would have even more significance if it was his North American Heavyweight Championship belt, not a bag of money, that dangled high above the ring. Fans lapped it up.
It’s safe to say that a young Bret Hart was among those who saw the crowd-pleasing potential, thereby helping launch one of WWE’s most popular gimmick matches.
Although it seems no video footage exists of those Kroffat-Kamata showdowns (not online, anyway), here’s another early ladder match from Calgary Stampede pitting Jake Roberts against the man who would become The Junkyard Dog, Big Daddy Ritter.