On Nov. 21, 1979, 4,176 people headed inside Nashville’s brand-new Tennessee State Fairgrounds Sports Arena to unwittingly wrestle with history. The first 1,200 families at the night’s wrestling event received a cellophane-wrapped pack of wrestling-themed trading cards, a giveaway sponsored by Pabst Blue Ribbon and fast food chain Rax Roast Beef.
Recipients ripped open the set to reveal a cover coupon card that people could trade for free fries at a Nashville-area Rax location. The remaining 22 color cards seemed less valuable. They featured candid, unintentionally kitschy shots of largely indifferent pro wrestlers posing before cinder block walls, plus a referee, announcer, and National Wrestling Alliance executives and employees working behind office desks.
Sweet windbreaker, Pat Smith! Great lei, Prince Tonga! (He wrestled as Haku in the former World Wrestling Federation). And, uh, nice penmanship, secretary Donna Bower!
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Most sets disappeared into trash cans and landfills. But the few that somehow survived spawned a legend that’s only grown larger with the ensuing decades. “PSA Magazine,” which covers trading cards and memorabilia, has called it the “most elusive set of wrestling cards,” and only three known complete sets exist.
Collector David Peck spent seven years seeking out a set, according to the PSA article. “During the span of eBay’s existence, there have really only been two times when cards from this set have popped up,” he said.
“Anybody that posts a picture of getting them, people are trying to make them an offer they can’t refuse.”
“It’s revered,” says Brett Lauderdale, the owner of Game Changer Wrestling, an independent wrestling promotion that puts on events across America. “It’s built its lore by being impossible to find.”
Instead of hunting down a deck in the digital haystack, Lauderdale decided to create a sequel to the collectible legend. GCW partnered with Pabst Blue Ribbon to produce a purposely cheesy 22-card set inspired by the 1979 original. Released in January, the deck features popular GCW stars including Effy, Nick Gage, and Joey Janela alongside employees. The Polaroid-style images look like the result of taking a starkly lit mugshot during a surprise visit to a proctologist’s office.
“People that have gotten them are getting hounded,” Lauderdale says. “Anybody that posts a picture of getting them, people are trying to make them an offer they can’t refuse.”
When Trading Cards Met Tobacco and Beer
Sports trading cards have long been tied to vice. In the mid-1880s, tobacco companies began promoting their brands by printing picture cards and sticking them inside cigarette packs. The cards featured everything from animals to international flags, Native American chiefs, and baseball players. (The stiff cards also prevented cigarette packs from being crushed.)
Collecting cards became a hobby for kids and adults alike, a new pastime centered on America’s nascent national pastime. Fast-forward a century or so, and craft beer became a new kind of collectible, sought out and traded for with the same reverence I once had for Ken Griffey Jr.’s iconic Upper Deck rookie card. Care to swap some Three Floyds Dark Lord Imperial Stout for a hand-filled growler of Hill Farmstead Abner IPA?
“Back in 2015 when craft beer was really in its heyday, the collectability of beer was very real,” says Jake Rouse, the cofounder and CEO of Braxton Brewing in Covington, Ky. Last year, Rouse and his father opened Hit Seekers Sports Cards beside its Braxton Barrel House location. The store welcomes collectors of all ages, and there’s good reason for adults to linger.
“We’re probably the only sports card shop in America that has an active beer license to let parents buy beer while their kids are ripping packs,” Rouse says.
Breweries are also entering the trading card game. IPA and merch powerhouse Tree House created a set containing more than 250 cards featuring its crew members, beers, and multiple Massachusetts locations. Trading card and collectibles company Topps has partnered with illustrator and Mikkeller art director Keith Shore on multiple card sets, including last year’s Taste Buds series of Garbage Pail Kids. It features well-known brewers including Henry Nguyen of Monkish Brewing (“Hop-Forward Henry”) and Ashleigh Carter from Bierstadt Lagerhaus (“Copper Carter”).
Pabst has a longstanding partnership with independent wrestlers and is a GCW sponsor. Tag teaming with GCW on resuscitating the trading cards was an easy sell. “We’re a brand that’s been around since 1844,” says director of partnerships Josh Feingold. “Anytime we can tap into something that was popular years ago, if it makes sense as a nostalgia play, we love it.”
“You’re Not Supposed to Look Cool in This Picture”
In the minds of Feingold and Lauderdale, the revival meant bringing Rax into the fold. The beefy fast-food chain had dwindled over the decades, and just eight locations exist in Ohio, Kentucky, and Illinois. Tennessee has none. (If you’ve ever dreamed of selling sliced-beef sandwiches, here’s a licensing opportunity for you!) The company’s inclusion would be more symbolic than monetary.
“We weren’t going to ask anything of them,” Feingold says. “We were like, ‘Can you just give us the rights to not sue us if we put your logo on here?’”
Outreach proved futile. “I emailed and called the corporate office and I got no reply,” Lauderdale says.
They scrapped Rax. GCW wrestlers and staff were on board. Over the course of around six months at wrestling venues in Los Angeles, photographer Kevin Quiroz snapped pictures of wrestlers, plus commentator Dave Prazak, doorman “Eric from L.A.,” and Lauderdale, too.
Wrestlers are used to looking imposing or fearsome. Getting them on board with a corny or generic pose, like smashing a fist into their palm while staring with dead-fish eyes in front of a bland background, took some coaxing. “It was also fun trying to explain that you’re not supposed to look cool in this picture,” Lauderdale says. “It’s like they have to undo everything they’ve learned.”
The original 1979 run included 1,200 sets, but Lauderdale only printed 200 sets of the GCW x PBR collaboration, which sold for around $30. The first 40 or so sets were reserved for Patreon subscribers and “went instantly,” Lauderdale says, and a set sold on eBay for $300 on the bustling secondary market. (You can currently buy a deck for the low, low price of $149.)
Selling the remaining merch online would run counter to the set’s elusive nature. GCW regularly creates other card sets, and some collectors will buy 10, 15, or even 20 sets and save them for future resale, Lauderdale says. “We don’t want anybody to be able to get more than one.”
Lauderale will take a couple packs to shows, be it in Evansville, Ind., or Orlando, Fla., or New York City, and sell them at the merch table. The early bird gets the set. “If you’re one of the first people in the door, you might see them and have a shot,” he says. Lauderdale has no intention to print additional sets, letting the legend slowly simmer. “I would almost rather just keep them rare,” he says.
Nostalgia is cyclical. Today’s discard pile is tomorrow’s treasure, and today’s treasures might be worthless down the line. And perhaps some future wrestling promoter will stumble across the cards and send an unexpected text, email, or maybe even a telepathic message to an unwitting PBR brand manager. “Hopefully in 30 or 40 years this comes up again,” says Feingold.