One Friday morning in the spring of 1971, Geoff Winningham picked up the sports section of the now defunct Houston Post. At the time, Winningham had just begun teaching photography at Rice University, but at night, he’d grab his camera and head wherever he could find a crowd to shoot. In the paper, he saw an ad for a wrestling event happening that night at the Sam Houston Coliseum. “I’d bet there be some crowds there,” he thought.
Winningham was familiar with wrestling; he’d grown up in Tennessee, watching Saturday night fights on TV. Yet what he saw at the coliseum that Friday floored him. “I walked in and walked down the aisle, through the crowd, and toward the ring,” he remembers. “All these bright spotlights coming down on this white mat with the ropes around the ring, crowds screaming, and big guys throwing each other through the air and jumping on each other and torturing each other. It was madness.”
The coliseum’s promoter, Paul Boesch—who also served as the ring announcer—welcomed Winningham, and the photographer became a regular, returning to the revelry night after night. Boesch let him photograph locker rooms, gave him access inside and outside the ring, and introduced him to the wrestlers. With that, Winningham—who became known inside the coliseum as the professor of wrestling—spent the next nine months photographing the Houston wrestling scene, capturing the villainous heels, heroic baby faces, and fervent fans. One frequent attendee, Ethel, loved the spectacle so much that she decided she wanted to rest there after death. “It’s in my will,” she told Winningham. “When I die, I want to be cremated, and I want my ashes scattered on Friday night in the Coliseum.”
Houston’s zeal for wrestling has its roots in the post–World War I era, when wrestlers such as the small but mighty Pet Brown and Frank Gotch, who helped popularize the sport across the United States, drew large crowds. By the forties, before television grew in reach and popularity, wrestling had amassed such a large local following that at one event at the Houston City Auditorium, fans purchased over $1 million in war bonds. Later, when TVs became a fixture of Texans’ homes, the airing of matches on KHTV strengthened Houston wrestling’s already considerable hold on audiences’ imaginations. A couple of decades down the line, when Winningham arrived to photograph what he calls “theater on a popular level,” the televised fights that drew thousands of fans to the Coliseum were in their twenty-third year. By the mid-eighties, the World Wrestling Federation’s expansion decimated regional wrestling scenes from coast to coast, and local favorites like Johnny Valentine and Wahoo McDaniel were replaced by national icons like Hulk Hogan.
Almost fifty years later, Winningham—still a professor of photography at Rice, whose work has been shown at the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art—has revived the spirit, grit, and excitement of those sweaty wrestling nights in Friday Night in the Coliseum. The book, which was first published in 1971, saw its second edition released in February of this year. The new edition has been expanded from 144 to 180 pages and features almost 200 photographs—26 of them previously unpublished—that capture a singular moment in Houston history. “As I look again at the pictures that I took and read the words of the people that I remember from my Friday nights in the Coliseum, I am saddened by what has been lost,” Winningham writes in the book’s afterword. “[A]nd I am grateful for what I have been able to preserve.”