A Salute to WWE's ‘Hidden Gems’

Gone too soon

undertaker universal
WWE Network

As a visual medium, professional wrestling is effectively infinite. There are constantly high-quality performances going on across the globe, many of which are being recorded, and it’s been that way for a long time. The availability has gotten significantly better, thanks to streaming the expense and difficulty of video production nosediving, but in a sense, it’s kind of always been that way. Even when pro wrestling was a regional television production, most of the regional promotions all had their own TV shows. The cost of videotape and ease of reusing it meant that a lot wasn’t saved—by the promotions or fans—and that there’s far from a complete accounting of what’s out there, though. Throw in X-factors like fan-shot bootlegs—especially in Japan, where it was implicitly approved—among many other things, and you get the idea: There’s a lot of pro wrestling that’s known to exist on videotape, and so much more could exist that collecting it can often be a mystery.

In September 2016, WWE leaned into this by launching the Hidden Gems feature on its WWE Network streaming service, releasing newly discovered (and sometimes rediscovered) footage, which became a weekly series in May 2018. It was an uncharacteristic love letter to long-term, die-hard fans, one that constantly checked off boxes of holy grails, previously unseen matches and cards, wowing fans at every turn. Unfortunately, though, it appears to have come to an end. Reportedly, with zero announcement from WWE, the ongoing Hidden Gems updates have been dropped. As of this writing, WWE has not responded to an email requesting comment on the report’s accuracy.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the Hidden Gems releases were basically everything that the hardcore, old-school videotape trading fans could have possibly dreamed of. The first batch that introduced the concept in 2016 included one item that made it the best possible mission statement: Tommy Rich vs. Buzz Sawyer in “The Last Battle of Atlanta” from Oct. 23, 1983. The feud-ender to a long, drawn-out, and bloody feud that aired nationally on Superstation WTBS, the match was heavily hyped in the newsstand wrestling magazines, influential as the steel cage match with a roof on the cage... and it was seemingly not taped.

Well, at least as far as anyone knew. Not a frame of the match, even in edited form, so it felt like a normal casualty of numerous cards not being filmed, just an egregious example because the match was so heavily hyped. As it turned out, WWE had the tape with the match—actually the entire card from the Omni Arena—since it bought the assets of World Championship Wrestling in 2001. It was just one of the thousands of tapes in WWE’s massive library that had yet to be aired. This was somewhat understandable, as the tape of the card in question was one of several in a group labeled “Omni Live Events” with no other identifying information.

Over the next three-plus years, especially during the last 18 months, when new Gems were released weekly, long-desired wrestling footage kept pouring out with shocking consistency. A previously unavailable world title match from the weekly matches in Fort Worth, Texas, which were long thought to be lost? Check. “The God of Pro Wrestling” Karl Gotch from his time as a tag team champion in WWE in the early 1970s? Check. Full episodes of television shows from Shreveport, Louisiana, and Dallas not seen since they first aired about four decades ago? Check. Lex Luger being introduced as WWE champion at a TV taping to trick the media? Check. A bevy of non-televised matches from WWE TV tapings featuring tryout matches for Konnan, Sabu, A.J. Styles, War Raider Ivar, and others, as well as a tryout interview for Jimmy Garvin?  Check, check, check, check, check, and check. All this barely scratches the surface; there were numerous non-televised shows from the ‘80s, from the card where the opening scene of Highlander was filmed to the long-desired 1986 Crockett Cup tournament, unaired pilots, and more, including numerous strange odds and ends.

As much as the uber-classic footage was the most desirable of the lot, the Hidden Gems producers’ unbridled enthusiasm for stuff that was just plain weird may have been the heart and soul. There were the legitimate press conferences for some of the early WrestleManias, one replete with numerous satellite transmission errors, another that featured a local youth pastor who somehow got credentialed so he could scold “Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase for tricking a small child. Those might have some wider appeal, though: After all, they were part of freaking WrestleMania. The same can’t be said for releases like three hours of unedited raw footage documenting Lex Luger slamming Yokozuna and going on a promotional bus tour, wrestlers visiting Napoleon’s tomb, a wrestling show held with special breakfast cereal-centric characters as part of a corporate cereal convention.

In a way, that cereal convention show sums up the unique appeal in play. There were plenty of times that a fairly obscure piece of footage or potential footage would be named in a far-flung corner of the internet populated entirely by the biggest of hardcore fans, only to show up a few weeks later in a Hidden Gems release, and that was one of them. It happened just enough to feel like it couldn’t be a coincidence, especially with something like the cereal show, which would only get mentioned every few years by a friend of mine. It’s rare for any company to be so on the pulse of its fans, especially geeky completist hardcores, but WWE Network’s Hidden Gems did just that. Here’s to hoping that they live on as a periodic feature again if they can’t be weekly anymore.

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